I’m Just a Bill: The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act and You

If you hang out in fisheries or wildlife circles, you’ve likely seen or heard talk about something called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. Perhaps you’ve wondered to yourself “That sounds good, but what’s it all about?” Here’s a quick guide to the basics of the Act – also referred to as “RAWA” – and what its passage would mean for fisheries conservation and management.

What is RAWA?

RAWA is a bill currently under consideration in the United States Congress (the House of Representatives and Senate) that would direct $1.3 billion annually to state
fish and wildlife agencies to implement their science-driven wildlife action plans, and an additional $97.5 million to tribal wildlife managers. If passed, it would become a law (thanks, Schoolhouse Rock!) and would fund efforts to conserve and monitor at-risk species, known in states as Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), in order to work toward reversing population declines.

“With enough bipartisan support, I could one day become law and provide much-needed funding to conserve species at risk!” (Photo credit: Schoolhouse Rock)

Why is RAWA needed?

From the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam, the people inhabiting the land that would eventually become the United States have relied on its extensive wildlife and fisheries. Tribes have relied on fish and wildlife resources since time immemorial, and European settlers later came to also rely heavily on those same resources – often to the point of overexploitation. 

A 2018 report from the National Wildlife Federation, the American Fisheries Society, and The Wildlife Society estimated that a third of all U.S. fish and wildlife species are at an elevated risk of extinction, and freshwater biota are especially threatened. The U.S. is home to a high diversity of freshwater animals, ranging from majestic and well-known fish species like trout and sturgeons to lesser-known (but equally majestic) invertebrate species like the over 200 species of freshwater mussels.

Purple mountain majesties have nothing on the lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) (Photo credit: K. O’Reilly)

Freshwater biota of all shapes and sizes are often important both economically (i.e., for recreational or commercial fishing) and culturally (e.g., for tribal fisheries and regional identity). However, it’s estimated that 40% of U.S. freshwater fish are now considered rare or imperiled and over 70% of native freshwater mussels are considered threatened in part because freshwater habitats face a variety of threats including loss of connectivity (e.g., dams and culverts), changes to land use, lack of water due to diversions, and increasing frequency and severity of droughts, heat waves, floods, wildfires, and storms due to climate change.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

When it comes to protecting freshwater species, financial resources for conservation are often in short supply, especially for species that aren’t typically considered by humans to be valuable like those considered “rough fish.”  Much of the funding for state wildlife agencies comes from hunting and fishing licenses and permits, as well as federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear. However, this funding model has also contributed to a management bias towards game species, with often non-game species lacking substantial, dedicated funding sources. This problem is amplified in tribal agencies, where no federal fund exists that agencies can utilize annually for long-term conservation planning.

The existing State and Tribal Wildlife Grant program is currently funded at only a fraction of what states need to implement conservation plans for fish and wildlife (Photo credit: https://www.nwf.org/Our-Work/Wildlife-Conservation/Policy/Recovering-Americas-Wildlife-Act)

When a species has declined so much that it gets to the point of needing protection under the Endangered Species Act, its recovery often becomes significantly more difficult and expensive (not to mention more uncertain). It costs taxpayers and businesses hundreds of millions of dollars each year to restore threatened and endangered species, costs which could be avoided or reduced if proactive conservation measures were implemented first – proactive measures such as those that would receive more funding if RAWA were to pass.

Like Rodney Dangerfield, non-game native fish species just can’t get no respect. (Photo credit: portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Fishing/Freshwater/Freshwater-Fishes-of-Connecticut/White-Sucker)

What’s the status of RAWA?

RAWA was introduced in the House of Representatives (H.R.2773) in 2021 by Representatives Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), and in the Senate as S.2372 by Senators Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Roy Blunt (R-MO). Both chambers in Congress have moved the bill through committee and it’s now posed for a floor vote by both the House and the Senate. The bill is particularly noteworthy because it has bipartisan support – not very common in our polarized times – and is supported by many leading conservation organizations including The American Fisheries Society and The Wildlife Society. While this is the furthest the bill has made it in the legislative process, it’s not quite at the finish line. RAWA still faces obstacles in both chambers, including debate over how to pay for it and what features in the draft will be included in the final compromise.

Putting the “fish” back in “of-fish-al congressional business” (Photo credit: K. O’Reilly)

If RAWA is passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, it would go to the president’s desk for a signature and then become law. It would also represent a new model for funding fish and wildlife conservation by providing nearly $1.4 billion annually to state, territory, and tribal agencies to fund State Wildlife Action Plans. These plans, approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, incorporate science and public input and are science-based conservation strategies to recover and sustain healthy fish and wildlife populations.

So what can you do?

Call your member of Congress to request that they support RAWA by following this phone call script from AFS: House version, Senate version

Watch this webinar from AFS for more information about RAWA: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZOwBHtnqAY

Post about RAWA on social media using the hashtag #RecoverWildlife

References and Resources:

Rypel, Andrew L., et al. (2021). “Goodbye to “Rough Fish”: Paradigm Shift in the Conservation of Native Fishes.” Fisheries 46.12: 605-616. https://doi.org/10.1002/fsh.10660

Walsh, Stephen J., Jelks, Howard L., and Noel M. Burkhead. (2009). “The decline of North American freshwater fishes.” Action Bioscience. http://pubs. er. usgs. gov/publication/70003605

Williams, James D., Warren, Melvin L., Cummings, Kevin S., Harris, John L., and Richard J. Neves. (1992). Conservation status of the freshwater mussels of the United States and Canada. Fisheries, Vol. 18(9), p. 6-22

Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (National Wildlife Federation)

Policy Column: Crossing the Finish Line: The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act this Congress

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