Recovering America’s Wildlife Act died in Congress last year. Could it still become law?

Just a few months ago, the US was poised to pass one of the most significant environmental laws in history: Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. The bill, known as RAWA, would fund species conservation across the country and was considered the biggest piece of environmental legislation since the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

In June, RAWA passed the US House by a large margin. And months earlier, it cleared the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works with bipartisan support. It had the Senate votes. Then, in December, weeks before the congressional term was over, it seemed like the bill’s time was finally here: Lawmakers included RAWA in the massive government spending bill.

But just before the bill came to a vote, RAWA was cut, largely because Congress couldn’t agree on how to pay for it. Then the congressional term was over. RAWA was dead; lawmakers would have to restart the process. This was just days after more than 190 nations adopted an agreement to protect wildlife at the United Nations biodiversity summit in Montreal.

“The world had just decided that nature needs more protection,” said Tom Cors, director of lands for US government relations at the Nature Conservancy. And here was the US, sinking a bill that would protect species even before they’re considered endangered. “It’s bittersweet, knowing that you are on a cusp of a generational advance for conservation and then realizing you have to start from scratch,” he said.

While RAWA failed in 2022, it’s not dead for good.

The core of the bill still has bipartisan support. In fact, some environmental advocates say it could pass as soon as this year, for real — on the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. Here’s what that would mean and whether it could actually happen.

Solving a big problem in American conservation

One-third or so of species in the US are threatened with extinction, according to the Nature Conservancy. Think about that: One in three species could disappear for good. That includes things like owls, salamanders, fish, and plants, each of which contributes some function to ecosystems that we depend on.

Thankfully, there’s such a thing as conservation, and in the US, much of it is done by state wildlife agencies. Fish and game departments have a range of programs to monitor and manage species that include reintroducing locally extinct animals and setting regulations for hunting and fishing.

The American burying beetle, an insect that feeds on dead animals. It has vanished from much of its range.
Dan Rieck/Getty Images

Their work, however, faces a couple of big problems.

The first is that states don’t have enough money. Roughly 80 percent of funding for state-led conservation comes from selling hunting and fishing licenses, in addition to federal excise taxes on related gear, such as guns and ammo. These activities aren’t as popular as they once were. “That results in less conservation work getting done,” Andrew Rypel, a freshwater ecologist at the University of California Davis, told Vox in August.

Another challenge is that states spend virtually all the money they do raise on managing animals that people like to hunt or fish, such as elk and trout. “At the state level, there’s been almost zero focus on non-game fish and wildlife,” Daniel Rohlf, a law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, said in August. That leaves out many species — including, say, kinds of freshwater mussels — that play incredibly important roles in our ecosystems.

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