The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) has been knocking around Congress for a number of years in various versions. It would provide matching federal grants to the states for implementation of state wildlife action plans to conserve “species of greatest conservation need” (SGCN). In the 117th Congress (2021-22), RAWA has been introduced in the House (H.R. 2773) by Representatives Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), and in the Senate (S. 2372) by Senators Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Roy Blunt (R-MO).
The basic idea is a good one: provide much needed funding to states to protect species of wildlife that are mostly non-hunted (i.e. non-game) and prevent them from becoming endangered. The money would be substantial, too. If fully funded, RAWA would deliver about $1.4 billion annually to states, tribes and territories, representing roughly a 25 percent increase in their wildlife agency budgets. States would have to put up a 25 percent match—also a significant amount of money.
The money would be allocated among the states by formula, based on a state’s size, population, and the number of species it contained that were protected as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
However, as written, the bill has several flaws. First, it does not require states to give their wildlife agencies management authority over all wildlife species. Many state wildlife agencies today do not have authority to manage invertebrates, and in some states, like New Mexico, do not even have authority to manage all of their vertebrate species. It is entirely likely that states like New Mexico will have to turn away RAWA funding because it lacks management authority over some SGCN. Alternatively, there will be perverse incentives to avoid adding certain species to the list of SGCN even if they merit listing, because the states couldn’t use RAWA funding for species over which they lack management authority.
Secondly, the money will go to the same broken system of wildlife management in many states that is focused on serving consumptive users and uses, that prioritizes the production of game animals over the protection of ecosystems, and which excludes other voices from wildlife deliberations. States like Idaho, Montana and Wisconsin, for example, will get millions in new federal funding for wildlife at the same time as they are trying to get rid of their wolf populations and have not demonstrated a commitment to protecting all wildlife within their borders.
Finally, the bill is almost entirely lacking in accountability mechanisms. States are required to file reports every three years with Congress and the U.S. fish and Wildlife Service explaining how they used the money, and their work plans for the next three years. There is no requirement to post those reports to a public website, or hold meetings to report back to the public or take public input.
RAWA could be greatly improved with a few tweaks. In July, 2021, 40 wildlife advocacy organizations sent this letter to the House Natural Resources Committee and RAWA sponsors, urging them to consider three changes that could make RAWA not just a game changer for wildlife conservation but an engine to reform state wildlife governance to make it more democratic and compassionate.