Why Congress Must Pass Recovering America’s Wildlife Act

I’m a notorious curmudgeon. I run my pickup tires so bare that I dread pre-season blizzards. I’d rather eat leftovers at my desk than meet friends for a burger, not because I’m antisocial, but because that Tupperware can of moose stew is a free meal.

I apply the same philosophy to public policy. I’m a tax conservative and I want us to run our treasury the way I run my own bank account, with an appreciation for every hard-won dollar. While I’m fully supportive of smart investing, I’m not a big fan of government payouts in the name of Covid relief or fixing historical injustices.

It may surprise you to learn that I’m a big fan of a bill floating around in Congress that would give states and tribes about $1.3 billion annually to proactively conserve all species not actively protected by traditional fishing and fishing -game agency funding. Of course, that traditional funding is the hunting and fishing licenses that we buy. The reason I support this bill, called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (or RAWA), is because it’s good tax policy that funds active management of species that will cost a lot more to manage if they’re ever on the list of threatened or endangered species land. In other words, it’s a wise and timely investment.

RAWA was passed by the House of Representatives back in June, a rare legislative triumph in a session marred by a deadlock with neither party looking to give the other politics a victory ahead of November’s midterm elections. The law is now stuck in the Senate, where key senators are reportedly holding it hostage to exploit other legislation.

I was in Washington, DC last week speaking to the Congressional Sportsmen Foundation and the number of conversations that began with the phrase “We must pass RAWA…” became monotonous. So I began to ask the question we should all be asking about the “must-pass” legislation that we are routinely hunted to support by the various organizations around us.

What follows is a synthesis of these answers, viewed through the lens of my own curmudgeon worldview:

It’s an old idea. The origins of RAWA go back more than 40 years. For about that long, the American conservation community has recognized that America’s user-paid model of wildlife management has worked beautifully to save wildlife species like wild turkey, white-tailed deer, and sunfish, but hasn’t done much to help species that we do don’t keep fishing or hunting. These non-wildlife species, including monarch butterflies and Clark’s nutcrackers and all types of salamanders, have no human affiliation or ready source of funding for management. This means there is no support structure that can monitor populations, conserve important habitats and ensure these neglected species do not disappear in public.

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It takes a lot of money to manage these non-game types, money that is said to be better invested in higher tier types and missions. But when these species decline and federal agencies take over their management, costs to states, private landowners, and local economies can skyrocket. Consider the cost to the Pacific Northwest’s logging economy when spotted owls were listed as endangered. Imagine how millions of dollars spent trying to delist them would have benefited everyone, including the owls themselves.

The origin of the idea of ​​a safety net for these non-wild species dates back to 1988 when it was called the American Heritage Trust Fund. This proposal would have put $1 billion in an account to fund non-wildlife species and habitats. A revised version of the CARA (Conservation and Reinvestment Act) introduced in 2000 would have allocated $3.1 billion annually for non-wild species management. CARA “Lite” later funneled federal money to states through a system of wildlife grants. All of these earlier efforts have been thwarted, but the need grows greater every year.

monarch butterfly
Pollinators like the monarch butterfly are vital to wildlife habitat. Getty Images

It’s a solid investment. We have given away Treasury funds on such a scale that “millions” don’t raise a blush and it takes “billions” to get anyone’s attention. Someone is going to pay for all this generosity, and it’s our children’s children, a populace that conveniently doesn’t have lobbyists. But RAWA is not a careless giveaway. By sending funds to government agencies responsible for wildlife management, we ensure that populations of endangered species stay on the bright side and don’t fall into endangered status. The cost of listing a single species was set at $305,000. That’s just the administrative costs of legal filing and paperwork, not all of the fieldwork and population assessment that results in a federal listing. RAWA wants to keep around 12,000 species out of federal protection.

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In my home state of Montana, I have a ready-made example of the costs/benefits of keeping a species off the endangered species list. Grizzly bears, which have been federally protected in Montana and neighboring states since 1975, cost each state about $2.5 million annually. That’s in addition to the $5 million being spent by federal agencies managing bears and educating the public about ways to coexist with grizzlies. What if Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming had each spent $20 million on habitat and management measures to ensure bears were never listed as federally endangered species? As a government-managed species, grizzly bears could have been tolerated in greater numbers, more habitat set aside for them, and funds generated from hunting licenses potentially targeting the problem bears that authorities currently cost millions to monitor and ultimately eradicate.

It allows government agencies to focus on their core business. As a graduate of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department, I know first-hand how many constituencies state agencies must respond to. Hunters, bird watchers, ranchers, animal rights groups, insurance lobbies, land trust organizations, politicians, professional guides, tournament anglers… This is in addition to the core work of monitoring wildlife populations, recommending hunting seasons, and managing hunters and anglers through seasonal structures and regulations. Excluded from this work are all other species affected by land use, human communities, climate change and even the management of these wild species.

What RAWA intends to do is provide funding to government agencies – with a 25 percent equity stake – to manage 12,000 native species that are not yet on the radar because their populations are still healthy. But the moment their population falls into oblivion, guess who’s going to pay for life support? That’s right, you and I, either through federal oversight or by paying government agencies to oversee their demise. There has to be a better way and right now RAWA is the best option we have.

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RAWA exempts agencies. I have a very specific dream of how RAWA can help my own FWP in Montana. Although we have seen an increase (thanks Covid) in hunting and fishing participation lately, the trend lines are negative. Aside from offering entry-level hunter education (and some states also offer fishing education), states have not been very involved in recruiting a new generation of their constituents. But RAWA can liberate agencies from the status quo by offering the same basic hunter training course they have taught for the last 30 years. What if states offered real-world hunter education, complete with region-specific field courses, hands-on practice like field dressing and distance estimation, and a curriculum that better prepared hunters for the field? This is expensive and time consuming to deliver, but it is possible. By freeing up limited financial resources, agencies could invest in just these types of forward-looking curricula.

There are a thousand other benefits of RAWA for state agencies, from hiring more game wardens to better lake and reservoir management to more effective CWD surveillance and more shooting ranges in more communities. But it starts with championing this new stream of funding.

What you can do about it

If you live in Michigan, you can play an outsized role in passing RAWA by encouraging your senior senator, Debbie Stabenow, to reverse her hold on RAWA and bring it to a committee and full Senate vote. Time is running out. This should be waived in time for the elections in November and the new Congress in January. But every athlete in every state can do their part by reaching out to their senator.

There are issues with the bill, including one dear to my curmudgeon: how do we pay this? There are some interesting funding ideas floating around, from regulating cryptocurrency to taking better account of the hidden costs of managing endangered species. But those details can be found out as the legislation goes through the process. The trick now is to get it started before November’s elections exacerbate the process even further.

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