For decades Michigan has relied on a pair of federal laws to provide millions of dollars for wildlife and sport fishing conservation.
But as declining sales of hunting and fishing licenses in Michigan and other states have sent conservation agencies scrambling to find new revenue, a bill working its way through Congress would significantly boost funding for state wildlife action plans.
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA), sponsored by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan, would be transformative by dedicating new funding for thousands of at-risk species.
“With RAWA, there would be a much more significant funding source for those species of greatest conservation need that don’t have these game and fish funds to support them,” said Amy Trotter, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. “That would be tremendous.”
RAWA has 168 co-sponsors in the House, including 43 Republicans and 10 members of Michigan’s congressional delegation. It passed the House Natural Resources Committee 26-6 in December.
“The Michigan delegation has been great. They’ve been very supportive of this potential new revenue source,” Trotter said. “It’s just trying to get some of those other states on board and keep pushing the ball forward on that.”
The bill has garnered support from both political parties and from conservation and business groups alike. In October, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer co-signed a letter with five other Great Lakes governors urging Congress to pass RAWA.
“This legislation provides a solution for one of America’s greatest threats — the decline of our fish and wildlife and their natural habitats, and what this means for people and our economy,” the governors wrote. “This groundbreaking legislation will help ensure that future generations can enjoy the same abundant fish, wildlife, and outdoor recreation opportunities that we have today.”
For more than a half century, two federal laws in particular have provided dedicated funding for fish and wildlife conservation. The Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 collects excise taxes on various firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment, while the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act (named after former Michigan Congressman John Dingell, Sr.) of 1950 collects taxes on fishing and boating equipment.
Revenues for hunter safety and restoration programs are distributed to states based on land area and the number of licensed hunters and anglers they have. For fiscal year 2019, Michigan received $20.2 million from Pittman-Robertson and $10.5 million from Dingell-Johnson, comprising 41 percent of the federal funds in the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ budget. Federal revenue makes up 17 percent of the DNR’s budget, while 81 percent comes from state restricted and general funds.
Michigan ranks seventh in the U.S. for the amount it receives from Dingell-Johnson, according to the DNR, landing more than $255 million since 1950 for sport fish restoration and management, public access for boating and aquatic education. Over the past five years, the law has supported habitat restoration along the Au Sable River and the experimental rearing of Atlantic Salmon in the Platte River State Fish Hatchery in Beulah.
Sean Saville, campaign manager for the Alliance for America’s Fish and Wildlife, said the two federal laws are among “a ton of noteworthy federal programs” that support states, such as the 30-year-old North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the State Wildlife Grants program of 2000.
While funding from Dingell-Johnson and Pittman-Robertson can fluctuate (excise tax revenues from guns and ammunition increased during the Obama administration, for example), RAWA would significantly increase the amount of federal conservation funding directed to states and cover all non-game species.
RAWA would direct $1.3 billion to states and $97.5 million to tribes for wildlife management. An August 2018 report in Audubon Magazine said the Michigan DNR’s budget for its wildlife action plan would grow from $2 million to about $31 million under RAWA.
“It would be a huge impact,” Saville said. “It would go a long way in protecting and conserving those 12,000 species of greatest conservation needs that states have identified in wildlife action plans.”
In 2016, the Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Wildlife comprising conservation and industry members concluded that a new national funding model was needed to address declining wildlife populations in the U.S. Essentially: State and federal funding programs — a significant portion of which is based on hunting and fishing license sales and excise taxes on equipment — don’t generate nearly enough revenue to tackle states’ wildlife action plans.
Funding for RAWA was previously proposed to use revenue from federal energy and mineral leases. The bill making its way through the House would come from the Treasury Department’s General Fund.
A key feature of RAWA is creating a proactive approach to conservation, advocates say. Saville said some federal programs — while successful — direct funding to certain species.
“It points to other needs like RAWA, which would create a dedicated, mandatory source of funding that over time could really pull the most imperiled, at-risk species out of the brink of extinction,” he said, adding that existing conservation programs address only about 5 percent of “what’s needed on the ground. That’s why RAWA is so important and such a game-changer for the conservation world.”
Saville said RAWA would be complementary to Dingell-Johnson and Pittman-Robertson, which primarily fund game species programs. While funding species that haven’t had sustainable revenue sources, RAWA also would support habitat restoration that would in turn benefit game species.
“It’s the rising tide raises all boats here,” Saville said. “It’s one of those once-in-a-generation, game-changer pieces of legislation that has strong bipartisan support in Congress. It certainly has raised the profile and visibility of the need for wildlife conservation in the country.”