Arizona could receive a huge boost in wildlife conservation funding if a bill that just cleared a key hurdle in the House makes it to the president’s desk.
The measure would add $1.3 billion to existing conservation funding by amending the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, a 1930s law that generates revenue through the sales of guns, ammunition and archery equipment.
The bill represents one of the largest investments in conservation work in recent years, extending a life raft to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which oversees the most biodiverse state in the inland U.S., and, significantly, to the wildlife agencies operated by the 22 federally recognized tribes in the state.
Introduced in the House last spring by Reps. Debbie Dingle, D-Michigan, and Jeff Fortenberry, R-Nebraska, HR2773, known as the Recovering America's Wildlife Act, passed last month on a bipartisan vote of 231-190. The Senate has taken up a companion version of the measure.
Under the proposal, annual disbursements of the funding would vary based on a state’s population, size and the number of species on the landscape. If the money were evenly distributed by state, each state would receive on average about $26 million in extra funding per year.
But because the money is based on wildlife species, Arizona could receive as much as $31 million in extra funding.
To get the money, states would be required to contribute 25% in non-federal matching funds. Most states currently generate non-federal revenue through sales tax, hunting tags and licenses or state lottery funds.
Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and has been a champion of the bill since its inception.
"Protecting wildlife in Arizona and across the country is not just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do," said Grijalva, a Democrat, in a press release. "Healthy, thriving wildlife populations are one of our greatest defenses against the looming threat of climate change in Arizona — they make our forests more resilient against wildfires and keep pests and invasive species in check."
Money could aid hundreds of species
Many species in Arizona aren't specifically protected, and their habitats lack targeted protection because agencies don't have the resources.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 605 species in Arizona are classified as Species of Greatest Conservation Need, imperiled species that don't yet qualify for federal listing under the Threatened and Endangered Species Act.
Arizona's State Wildlife Action Plan is a framework that outlines on-the-ground conservation efforts to help protect native wildlife and keep species from threatened or endangered status.
Ron Regan, the executive director of the Association for Fish and Wildlife Agencies, likens these plans to a roadmap to protecting species before they require the emergency-room-like care of the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the funding mechanism that pays for these efforts, primarily through the State and Tribal Wildlife Grant Program. But this money rarely covers all of what's required for every species. And many of these grants are competitive, which means lower priority projects are often left underfunded if they lose out.
Arizona has received $16 million since the program started in the early 2000s. It has helped species ranging from bald eagles to prairie dogs. The state also received $31 million last year from funding tied to the Pittman Robertson Act, one of the largest sources of wildlife funding for states in the country.
This money is also distributed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service annually based on the percentage each state contributed to the larger fund through the sales of firearms. A significant portion of funding in Arizona comes directly from the state.
“Nearly 70% of the Department’s funding comes from hunters and anglers through their discretionary purchases of licenses, tags and outdoor-related equipment,” said Tom Cadden of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "The state Game and Fish Commission determines which projects will be funded with Pittman Robertson funding."
While statewide conservation has flourished under these hunting-generated activities, the funding is not without critics.
Kevin Bixby is the founder and executive director at Wildlife for All, an advocacy organization with the goal of making the development of wildlife policy a more transparent, inclusive, science-based process.
The group argues that because much of the current revenue is tied to hunting and fishing, a significant portion of the funds conserve big or charismatic species that people like to hunt, such as big horn sheep and rainbow trout.
Why the new funding is critical for tribes
Conservation advocates and Indigenous leaders are quick to point out that the money from the original Pittman-Robertson act leaves out tribal nations and territories. The tribal grants that are available are piecemeal and inconsistent, and the competitive nature of the process means that many tribes are left without funding.
That would change under HR2773. The measure adds provisions that ensure all states, tribes, territories and the District of Columbia receive federal funding for wildlife conservation and species of greatest conservation need every year based on their 10-year State Wildlife Action Plans.
Tribes would be guaranteed $97.5 million through a Tribal Wildlife Conservation and Restoration grant program, and wildlife managers would be able to dedicate more money to programs that have gone underfunded.
Gloria Tom is the director of the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife and she has advocated for the passage of this bill as much as anyone else in Arizona. She has personally campaigned for a more inclusive funding process since the 1990s and has spoken on outreach webinars and written letters to members of Congress. Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly read one of her testimonials in a hearing on the bill.
"There's no room for capacity building. You can't build a management program with that," said Tom about the limited amount of funds that tribes receive. "And then you have to compete with other tribes for a small pot of money, and you're limited in the amount of funding that you can apply for."
She says it's taken years of collaboration and advocacy to finally reach this point. And it couldn't come too soon. The 572 tribal nations throughout the U.S. receive, on average, between $5 and $8 million per year. In comparison, states have received up to $90 million, but on average, according to Regan, receive between $50 and $70 million.
With money spread so thin, essential services such as education and outreach, law enforcement, and species monitoring are left unaddressed.
Darren Talayumptewa is a program manager for the Hopi Nation's Department of Natural Resources and leads the tribe's Wildlife and Ecosystems Management Program. He says the time for increased funding is long overdue for tribes.
Collectively, tribal lands cover 55 million acres across the US, roughly the size of the state of Minnesota. Talayumpetewa said the money that would result from the new bill could have an enormous impact on tribal wildlife management within the borders of the Hopi Nation, which lies within the Navajo Nation.
“Wildlife doesn't do borders,” said Talayumpetewa. “I really appreciate the opportunity that we're finally being recognized and considered for something this large of a scale.”
Measure has bipartisan support
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act has been in the making since at least 2015, when the Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources met to discuss how conservation funding could be secured to cover all native species.
The panel included representatives from 26 organizations that focus on wildlife policy and included a former governor of Wyoming, founders of fishing and hunting outfitters such as Trout Unlimited, and a director from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The panel met in Missouri to brainstorm ways to secure permanent, long-term funding for state fish and wildlife agencies to use for non-game species.
Since the enactment of Pittman-Robertson in the 1930s, agencies have long grappled with how to fund conservation for species that aren't hunted. Some states, like Arizona, fill that void using alternative sources such as lottery revenue, while others, like Arkansas, tap additional sales taxes.
The result has been a hodgepodge stream of conservation funding. To help address this challenge, the study group laid the groundwork for the bill now under consideration.
The group recommended that the government permanently allocate $1.3 billion to state wildlife agencies, the amount needed to fulfill the funding gap between what states were getting and what they actually needed for Species of Greatest Conservation Need. The group also recommended at least two dozen sources of revenue, though none have stuck thus far.
In the House, one Democrat and one Republican introduced the first Recovering America's Wildlife Act in 2017. Through multiple iterations, the bill adapted and changed as more leaders weighed in. The tribal title was added in 2019.
Proponents say the bill's passage in the House has been a rare bright spot in a Congress that has been gripped by gridlock. Democrats and a smaller contingent of at least 45 Republicans voted yes on passing the bill.
Regan, from the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, was an original member of the blue-ribbon panel that helped craft the bill. He has been a champion for expanded funding for over two decades.
Two of the biggest problems that exist in today's conservation efforts, he said, are lack of connection to nature, and a lack of funding. One way to solve both is by direct investments from Congress.
"States know how to manage fish and wildlife, their public trust resources, they've proven they can successfully and competently manage creatures from the brink of extinction to abundance," said Regan. "And if they had the right-sized amount of funding to address the species that are in their state wildlife action plans, they could demonstrate the same kind of success."
Should state agencies consider reforms?
The bill is not without concerns for some members of Congress. A significant point of contention for some is the lack of a funding source.
Thus far, no sources have been identified, causing some lawmakers, like Bruce Westermann, R-Arkansas, to question the validity of passing a bill that guarantees no specific money
Part of the reason for the new legislation is to direct new funding toward non-game species, Regan said. Existing programs tend to focus on consumptive users, or hunters and anglers, given the revenue source of most state agencies.
Sandy Bahr, the director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter, believes the current system is broken. She said one of the drawbacks of existing funding is the hyper-focus on game species. The wildlife commission in Arizona, for example, is exclusively made up of hunters, and as a result, sees consumptive users as its main constituency.
"It kind of takes away from a more comprehensive look at wildlife, looking at healthy ecosystems, and ensuring that all of our native wildlife species have sustainable and healthy populations," said Bahr. "And instead, I think it focuses a little bit too much on the game species."
Bixby, who runs Wildlife for All, said while the funding boost is worth celebrating, it still gives money to the same agencies that prioritize consumptive users and game species.
For true conservation, he says, the state wildlife agencies should think more holistically about wildlife management, the ecological role of all species, and include people who don't hunt and fish.
"There's no requirement to hold public meetings on how they'd spend the money, there's no requirement to make their plans available to the public or let the public have an opportunity to comment on them," said Bixby. "There's not a lot of accountability."
The bill, as is, would give more money to the same agencies that have been resistant to reform to continue along the same path, he said. Of more than 450 wildlife commission seats in the U.S., he said, at least three-quarters of them are occupied by consumptive users.
The effect is that wildlife policy often only caters to those who hunt and the species they like to kill.
The new measure, Bixby said, could have funded state-led conservation, and introduced reforms to bring these agencies into the 21st century.
The authors of the bill could have added a provision to make wildlife commissions more diverse, to represent all wildlife users, as a condition of receiving the extra funding, Bixby said. They could have required that the public be included in management decisions. And they could have conditioned the funding on giving state agencies broad power to manage wildlife.
"In theory, it's fantastic. It's just going to be a question of how states use it," said Bixby. "Our perspective is, across the nation, state wildlife agencies tend to operate in secrecy, they tend to focus on satisfying consumptive users, and they tend to dismiss or disregard non-hunters. And that bias is sort of built into state laws, state policies, and state wildlife institutions."
'It's going to be a game-changer'
Many advocates have heralded this new piece of legislation as a victory for American conservation. The Sierra Club, Wildlife Federation, The Wildlife Society, state chapters of the Audubon Society, World Wildlife Fund and Trout Unlimited have all supported the measure.
Bahr, from the Sierra Club, said one of the reasons the bill has been largely bipartisan is because it strengthens state control by empowering state wildlife agencies to guide their own policies before species are federally listed. That's been been a point of contention in some Republican states that generally favor state control over wildlife.
Regan said the bill has huge potential to benefit state wildlife agencies and non-game species through additional hiring of biologists, increasing outreach efforts to connect people who might not be near wildlife and increasing resources to monitor and study all species.
The state agency could use the money to learn more about species of greatest conservation need, establish new populations of species in their historical habitat, conduct surveys, and collaborate with partners such as universities and the Phoenix Zoo, said Tom Cadden, public information supervisor for Arizona Game and Fish.
No specific projects have been identified and some of the conditions of the funding, if the bill were to pass, could complicate the process of obtaining grants, Cadden said.
“The RAWA legislation includes a 25% match requirement that will necessitate the Department to maintain or increase its non-federal match sources in order to actually utilize the potential additional funds, and it is unknown yet what other requirements may be included by the federal government,” said Cadden.
The bill would also establish an Endangered Species Recovery and Habitat Conservation Legacy Fund that the Department of Interior would use for federally listed threatened and endangered species. The fund would provide $187.5 million every year between 2023 and 2026.
Caroline Murphy is a government relations program manager at The Wildlife Society and for her and conservation enthusiasts like her, the bill’s passage would be a welcome boost to cash-strapped conservation projects.
“It's going to be a game-changer as far as the ability of wildlife biologists to perform their work but also the relevance of wildlife biologists within the communities that they serve,” said Murphy. “It is specific to the conservation of at-risk species. But there are so many positive ripple effects that can come from the adoption of this legislation.”
Senate action still needed
The bill must now move through the Senate, where Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, introduced a companion version of the bill last year, along with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri.
On April 7, the Senate version passed the Environment and Public Works Committee on a bipartisan vote of 15-5. The next step would be to move it to the floor for a vote.
Regan said that probably won’t happen until lawmakers agree on a plan for funding the law. Previous iterations of the bill included funding from taxes on oil and gas, but those amendments were scrapped in 2019.
One way to fund the legislation, some watchers of the bill say, is to close some tax breaks on conservation easements. If these loopholes were closed, the IRS could direct some of this money to the U.S. Treasury so that it could be appropriated for the bill.
A recent investigation by ProPublica revealed that the use of syndicate easement deduction generated $9.2 billion in 2018.
The Department of Interior has already expressed support for the measure, sending a letter to Congress last summer urging passage of the bill.
And just last month, the White House praised the legislation for its bipartisanship, lauding the power of such a transformational piece of legislation to address some of the most pressing conservation issues by working directly with states and tribes.
“The Administration appreciates the legislation’s goal of providing assistance to these critical partners to support timely, collaborative, science-based actions to conserve fish and wildlife and their habitats before they become too rare or costly to restore,” the administration said in a letter.
“The Administration strongly supports the goals of H.R. 2773, the 'Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2022,' to equip fish and wildlife managers with the tools necessary to proactively address the most critical fish and wildlife conservation needs that we face today.”
Lindsey Botts is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/azcentral. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @lkbotts and Lkbotts on Instagram.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: A bill would create new revenue for states, tribes to protect wildlife