A conservation bill you’ve never heard of may be the most important in a generation

by Andrew L. Rypel

This blog is a short introduction to a lesser known federal bill that is one of the most significant pieces of fish and wildlife legislation in decades. In Spring of 2021, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) introduced the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. During July 2021, a separate adaptation of the act was also introduced in the Senate (S.2372) by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO). At its core, the bipartisan bill seeks to provide $1.39B in annual funding for state and tribal fish and wildlife agencies to protect and conserve declining species.

Fig. 1. Status of native fishes in California. Figure adapted from data in Moyle et al. 2011.

Of course, Californians are keenly aware of the jeopardy facing native biodiversity. 83% of our highly endemic fish fauna is declining. Many native fishes not currently listed under the US Endangered Species Act will be listed in the future as populations continue to collapse. A bevy of plant and animal communities are also struggling, which provided motivation for California’s Biodiversity Initiative and the 30×30 Partnership. Outside the existential threat to biodiversity, species declines create a regulatory environment filled with uncertainty – this is bad for businesses of all stripes. Conservation solutions with tangible benefits for ecosystems, species, and people provide win-win opportunities that will be increasingly needed in the future. 

Insufficient funds for conservation have plagued the vast majority of declining species. For example, State Wildlife Action Plans or SWAPs are a common mechanism for state fish and wildlife agencies to prioritize species conservation needs. Sometimes, these funds are used for grants to assist with such work – often termed ‘state wildlife grants’ or SWGs. Yet in most states funds allocated for SWAPs and SWGs are minuscule compared to need. Thus most actions just don’t get done. That may seem odd to many in the public because they see lots of other things happening at the agencies. 

How are most state fish and wildlife agencies funded?

For better or for worse, most state wildlife agencies operate under a “customer-driven” funding model. The bulk of funding for conservation is from purchases of hunting and fishing licenses. A smaller fraction of agency budgets is from federal excise taxes. On the fisheries side, the Dingell Johnson Act (AKA Sportfish Restoration) is a federal excise tax on recreational fishing and boating expenditures, and also a portion of boat gas. On the wildlife side, Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (or ‘PR’ funds) derives funding from a federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition. But even these funds are held in trust by the USFWS and redistributed back to state agencies using an algorithm partly based on license sale statistics. Combined, license sale revenues and excise tax funds have been the primary engines for growth in American fisheries and wildlife management over the last ~80 years. It therefore also means that hunters and anglers have traditionally paid for most fish and wildlife conservation programs. And because they paid the bill, they more or less drove policy conversations during this time. One result of this system is that a lot of outstanding science and management actually got done, it’s just that it focused disproportionately on ‘game species’. Meanwhile, there was little funding and work for countless other native fishes that weren’t valued by the majority customer block (Rypel et al. 2021). Redressing inequities and funding biases requires dealing with this funding issue in a straightforward way.

Fig. 2. Long-term decline of fishing license sales in California expressed either as an absolute total (left) or on a per capita basis (right). Data from US Fish and Wildlife Service National Fishing License Reports.

Another major problem with the customer-driven funding model is that sometimes customer blocks shrink and disappear. Fishing and hunting license sales have actually been declining for some time (Fig. 2). The many potential reasons for such trends warrant their own blog, but their effects on conservation budgets are tangible. In California, the decline has been blunted by a growing human population over this time frame. Yet as the state’s population recently plateaued near 40M, participation rates have continued to decline and we are starting to see the downstream funding impacts. For almost 30 years (1958-1988), roughly 10% of California’s population would buy a fishing license annually, peaking in 1988 (Fig. 2, right). Today, only ~4% buy a license. So funds for traditional fish conservation programs have taken a major hit. Some of this budgetary gap has likely been made up by bond measures (e.g., Prop 1). Yet, many species have life cycles that rely on essential habitats not targeted by bonds. Further, most funding for fish work in California is concentrated on threatened and endangered species. Thus a stunning diversity of species can fall through these conservation funding cracks. In the fisheries realm, I think of species like golden trout (our state fish) or coastal cutthroat trout. It gets worse for fishes like California roach, California hitch, California speckled dace or even Sacramento perch.

California has a recent State Wildlife Action plan with a wide range of priorities that would benefit from funding. It is estimated that the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would provide funding to implement 75% of every state’s action plan. I went through the CA SWAP document this week and was impressed at the detail and comprehensive nature of California’s current SWAP. Here are some goals from the SWAP I found personally interesting/admirable on what could get done if the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act were to pass. This list is not exhaustive or ordered in any specific way but provides insight into the type of work that could be done in California should the act pass:

  • In North Coast and Klamath Province, by 2025, miles of streams with target amphibian population are increased by at least 5% from 2015 miles.
  • In Bay Delta and Central Coast lagoons, by 2025, acres/miles with desired channel pattern (connected floodplains) are increased by at least 5% from 2015 acres/miles.
  • In the San Joaquin River, by 2025, miles of river where native species are dominant are increased by at least 5% from 2015 miles.
  • In the Deserts, by 2025, acres/miles with desired inches of groundwater are increased by at least 5% from 2015 acres/miles.
  • By 2025, population of Eagle Lake Rainbow Trout is increased by at least 5% from the 2015 population size.
  • In the South Coast, translocate species to increase current distribution; specifically, translocate Santa Ana sucker, Santa Ana speckled dace, and UTS into suitable habitat in the Big Tujunga, San Gabriel, and Santa Clara watersheds.
  • Develop or update and implement grazing BMPs in the Sierra Nevada.
  • Remove introduced brook trout in the context of recovery of listed Lahontan cutthroat trout.
  • By 2025, acres of wet mountain meadow habitat increased by at least 5% from 2015 acres.
  • Evaluate current condition and estuarine needs for coho salmon, eulachon, Pacific lamprey, and longfin smelt in key estuaries (i.e., Smith, Klamath, and Eel rivers and Humboldt Bay).

Current Status of Recovering America’s Wildlife Act

After years of working its way through Congress. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act has now been approved by both chambers of Congress, meaning it can receive floor votes soon. The bill is notable for its bipartisan support, especially in such hyper-polarized times. The Senate bill received 32 cosponsors – including 16 Republicans. Many leading conservation organizations support the act, including The American Fisheries Society and The Wildlife Society.

The act still faces obstacles in both chambers though. There remains debate over how to pay for it and what features in the draft act will be included in the final act. As it stands, the act would:

  1. Provide ~$1.39B in funding annually to state fish and wildlife agencies to implement their SWAPs.
  2. Almost $100M in funding annually to assist tribal agencies in recovery with declining species.
  3. 10% of the funds would become available for an annual grants competition program to enhance multi-state cooperation on conservation.

Other benefits of implementing the act include leveraging existing funds with other agencies and institutions, providing greater regulatory certainty to industry, and empowering fisheries and wildlife professionals to successfully conserve natural resources for future generations.  

Passage of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would be a major milestone in the management of America’s natural resources. It would signal a shift away from the entrenched customer-based model of conservation, to a degree. And it is a much needed example for how conservation activities can occur in a bipartisan way. Even if folks can’t agree on everything, sometimes, they can agree on something – why not conservation of our fragile biodiversity?

Golden trout caught from the Golden Trout Wilderness, California in 2014. Photo by DaveWiz84 downloaded from wikicommons.org.

Andrew L. Rypel is a professor of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology and Co-Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

Further Reading

Moyle, P.B., J. V. E. Katz and R. M. Quiñones.  2011. Rapid decline of California’s native inland fishes: a status assessment.  Biological Conservation 144: 2414-2423.

Rypel, A.L., P. Saffarinia, C.C. Vaughn, L. Nesper, K. O’Reilly, C.A. Parisek, M.L. Miller, P.B. Moyle, N.A. Fangue, M. Bell-Tilcock, D. Ayers, and S.R. David. 2021. Goodbye to “rough fish”: paradigm shift in the conservation of native fishes. Fisheries 46 605-616.

Rypel, A.L. 2022. Nature has solutions…What are they? And why do they matter? California WaterBlog https://californiawaterblog.com/2022/03/27/nature-has-solutions-what-are-they-and-why-do-they-matter/




About Andrew Rypel

Andrew L. Rypel is a Professor and the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Chair of coldwater fish ecology at the University of California, Davis. He is a faculty member in the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology and Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.
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2 Responses to A conservation bill you’ve never heard of may be the most important in a generation

  1. Thank you for sharing your insight into this issue.

  2. Protecting our species partners on the planet is a noble purpose for which there is none higher. We must give it our full creative effort to enable our partners to survive. Humans can certainly
    curtail water usage to favor those that cannot so do. They may also learn something about their own survival in the process. Thank You.

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