Senators Ponder $1.4 Billion Wildlife Recovery Bill

By Nathan Worcester
Nathan Worcester
Nathan Worcester
Nathan Worcester is an environmental reporter at The Epoch Times.
December 11, 2021 Updated: December 11, 2021

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee heard expert testimony Dec. 8 on the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA), a bipartisan wildlife protection bill that would be funded by fines and other money collected from environmental or natural resource-related violations.

RAWA revises the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act, which gave the tax money collected on firearms and ammunition to individual states for the purpose of protecting and studying wildlife.

RAWA would create a new, $1.3 billion subaccount for states, territories, and the District of Columbia to implement their wildlife conservation strategies, recover endangered or threatened species, combat invasive species, and fund law enforcement activities related to protection of wildlife species of greatest conservation need, among other purposes.

Additionally, it would create a $97.5 million tribal wildlife conservation and restoration account for uses similar to those of the $1.3 billion subaccount.

The Senate version of RAWA was introduced by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). With 16 Republican cosponsors and 16 Democratic cosponsors, it has garnered support from a range of environmental groups, including the conservative ConservAmerica and the more liberal Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Notably, funding could be granted to private lands, waters, or other holdings without requiring public access to the property.

“Frankly, private lands play an outsized role in the conservation of wildlife, including endangered and threatened species. Therefore, the key to recovering species is often to make them an asset for private landowners rather than a liability,” said Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) Vice President Jonathan Wood, one of the expert panelists before the committee.

Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), a cosponsor of RAWA, said he thought the bill could incentivize voluntary conservation by private landowners, reducing conflict over enforcement of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). He asked expert panelist Sara Parker Pauley, director of the Missouri Department of Conservation, how wildlife conservation might be impacted by falling revenue from hunting and fishing license purchases as fewer Americans choose to hunt and fish.

“Hunters and anglers have done their part. They have paved the way, and it’s because of them that we have the conservation success stories, but the formula going forward has to be different. It has to be something picked up by all of us,” Pauley said.

“I agree. That’s the point—we’re going to have to backfill that,” Boozman replied.

“This is a significant increase in funds, and the capacity to use those funds appropriately is something that we all have to be concerned about,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “I trust what you’re saying, that this bill could be very well implemented in that way with the supervision of [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife [Service]. But I’ve also seen what’s happened in the previous administration, where we thought we gave pretty direct guidance through our legislation, only to see the way it was implemented on the environmental side totally inconsistent with the bipartisan efforts here in the United States Congress.”

Cardin was answered by expert panelist Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President Obama.

“When you’re talking about moving money off budget, which this bill does, it severely restricts accountability,” he said.

The Epoch Times has reached out to Sen. Cardin’s office to clarify which Trump-era legislation he had in mind and what sort of accountability he envisions.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), another RAWA cosponsor, also spoke, saying he would use the chance to “point out what I see as a persistent bias in conservation and wildlife measures” against coastal states such as his own.

He cited the Land and Water Conservation Fund, saying, “There’s a huge discrepancy between what inland states get and what coastal states get if you adjust for population.”

The Epoch Times has reached out to Sen. Whitehouse’s office to determine the source of this claim and seek clarity on the extent of the discrepancy in such funding.

In later testimony, Ashe emphasized what he sees as the need for national-level coordination, citing the example of monarch butterflies.

“You can’t conserve monarch butterflies from Iowa or North Dakota, or Minnesota. It requires cooperation with Canada and Mexico in particular, because if we don’t protect the wintering grounds and reserves in Mexico, all of the conservation effort in the United States is meaningless. And so it’s absolutely essential to have strong, effective capacity within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” he said.

He told the committee that the national agency can serve as a “heat shield” for state agencies, who he said may be inhibited from addressing some environmental problems by local politics.

“It seems a little bit to me that we’re pitting the states against the Fish and Wildlife Service, and I hope that that isn’t the case,” Pauley later said. “We do so much amazing work with our federal partners in the Midwest. The intent of this legislation has been to at long last provide critically important funding to state fish and wildlife agencies to actually implement those state wildlife action plans.”

“Landowners are more comfortable working with states because most of your interactions with [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service begin with regulation or listing before you get to the ‘How can we collaborate?’” said Wood. “You’re more likely to get buy in from landowners and actual on-the-ground-conservation if it starts in that dialogue with the state of, ‘How can we solve problems,’ rather than ‘How can we impose regulations to try and control what you might do?’”

Senators have until Dec. 22 to send questions about RAWA to the expert panelists, who will be required to respond by Jan. 5.

Nathan Worcester is an environmental reporter at The Epoch Times.