Is the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act ready for climate action?

The bipartisan legislation includes $1.4 billion in annual conservation funding, but climate change isn’t explicitly addressed.

The proposed federal Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, more commonly known as RAWA, could prove a tremendous boon for conservation. The legislation would direct almost $1.4 billion annually to states, territories and tribes for the management of at-risk fish and wildlife species. The U.S. House of Representatives passed it with bipartisan support in June, and it’s expected to clear the Senate in September.


But the bill’s text never mentions climate change — despite the myriad impacts that climate change is having on wildlife species and habitats. Some worry that RAWA might be a missed opportunity. But others fear to lose the good in the quest for the great and argue that state and tribal wildlife management already recognizes climate change. “Over the years, there’s been an increasing emphasis on incorporating climate considerations into plans,” said Bruce Stein, chief scientist and associate vice president of the National Wildlife Federation.

State wildlife action plans are at the heart of RAWA. Starting in 2005, each state, territory and the District of Columbia submitted plans for approval by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to access federal grant money, with updated plans submitted every 10 years. The plans identify the species of greatest conservation concern — currently there are more than 12,000 nationwide — and offer advice on how to help them, acting as a road map for conservation. RAWA will provide 75% of the funding for these plans, which have long been underfunded, while states chip in the rest. RAWA would also dedicate $97.5 million annually for tribal wildlife conservation efforts, which currently have no recurring federal financial support.

An American pika, listed as a species of greatest conservation need in the Wyoming State wildlife action plan.
Donald M. Jones / Minden Pictures

Historically, state-level conservation efforts have focused on game species, with little funding available for conserving nongame species that aren’t covered by the Endangered Species Act. RAWA, however, would provide money to keep species from being listed in the first place. It’s an approach often described using a medical metaphor: Preventative care — in this case RAWA — is cheaper and more efficient than delaying care until a visit to the emergency room — i.e., the ESA — becomes necessary. 

EARLIER VERSIONS OF RAWA, FIRST INTRODUCED IN 2017, seemed to ignore the link between climate change and wildlife health by tying funding to federal oil and gas royalties. That’s since been eliminated, though a long-term source of financial support remains unclear. The current Senate draft says that money could come from “fees and penalties for violations of environmental requirements;” there’s also talk of closing tax loopholes surrounding conservation easements. 

Experts say including the phrase “climate change” in the bill could complicate its bipartisan passage. Sandra Zellmer, a professor of natural resources and environmental law at the University of Montana, said the bill’s effectiveness will only be known when states begin using RAWA funds. “Then we’re going to see whether or not it’s truly this major conservation landmark,” she said. “In theory, it’s pretty darn good. You hate to sabotage the good in the quest for the perfect.”

“In theory, it’s pretty darn good. You hate to sabotage the good in the quest for the perfect.”

Today, climate filters into state wildlife action plans in a patchwork of ways. The plans have eight congressionally required elements, none specifically related to climate change. But a few — including descriptions of problems that might harm a species and proposed monitoring strategies that take into account changing conditions — likely touch on it. The Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies has published voluntary guidance on incorporating climate change into state plans, and nongovernmental organizations sometimes partner with government agencies to help promote climate adaptation principles.

But exactly how the states incorporate climate change into their plans varies massively. An analysis of 15 Southeastern states found that few conducted climate change vulnerability assessments, and that climate adaptation strategies tended to be vague, with few examples of implemented actions. Agency officials from numerous states said their ability to address climate change was stunted by limited resources and expertise, as well as “political sensitivities.”

A great gray owl hunting. The owl, a species of conservation need in Montana, faces loss of habitat due to climate change, according to modeling.
Donald M. Jones / Minden Pictures

That’s where more requirements for RAWA funding could have been helpful, critics say. The legislation could have been written to incentivize measures that help species adapt to climate change, or to motivate states to find ways to reduce climate risks. “RAWA is going to dump a whole bunch of new money into the system without requiring that it be changed in any way to be more adept and capable of dealing with climate change and other drivers of extinction,” said Kevin Bixby, the executive director of Wildlife for All, a national campaign to overhaul state wildlife management. He’d like to see broader reforms as conditions for the influx of cash, including more discussion of who gets to serve on influential state wildlife commissions.

Proponents say that a more proactive approach that’s focused on species before they become ESA candidates will help wildlife threatened by climate change, even if it’s unstated. “With more resources, we could’ve avoided the decline that we saw with the lesser prairie chicken,” said Jeremy Vesbach, the lands program director for Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit that protects the West’s land, air and water. The bird is squeezed by habitat loss, and rising temperatures also kill its eggs. “I think we can say that if we had something like RAWA in the ’40s, we wouldn’t be getting to the dire step of listing a lot of species,” he said.

But even so, greenhouse gas emissions remain a fundamental problem. “Money and on-the-ground conservation efforts certainly help, but at some point they aren’t enough,” said Alex Erwin, an assistant professor of law at Florida International University. “We still need a comprehensive climate policy if we have any hope of stymying the wave of extinction.”

Kylie Mohr is an editorial fellow for High Country News writing from Montana. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy