Nowhere else in the United States is the planet’s biodiversity crisis so vividly on display as in Hawaii. Its islands are home to nearly 500 of the country’s 1,675 species listed as threatened or endangered, largely due to their isolation and the effects of introduced species such as rats and mosquitoes. Many of the state’s animals most in need of conservation action are forest birds, seabirds, and waterfowl. The stakes were made plain in 2021, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared eight Hawaii forest birds extinct.
Fortunately for its remaining species, Hawaii is also the state set to receive the largest boost in conservation funding from the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, a bill whose passage by Congress has been a long time coming and could happen in the next few days. While Hawaii stands to gain the most, the bill promises paradigm-shifting conservation funding for every part of the country. “We are in the midst of a massive wildlife crisis,” says Naomi Edelson, senior director for wildlife partnerships at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). If years of advocacy finally convince Congress to pass RAWA, as the bill is known, “it would be the biggest thing I and the thousands of other people and organizations working on this have ever done for wildlife. It is on a scale and magnitude that actually could address the challenges that wildlife face.”
At the moment, however, the bill’s outlook is uncertain. The House passed a version in June, but despite bipartisan support in the Senate, progress has been held up by debates over how to pay for it; the latest proposal involves closing a tax loophole related to cryptocurrency. But only days remain for the current Congress to approve RAWA, and wildlife advocates say that failing to do so would be a colossal missed opportunity.
With a total of $1.3 billion per year for states and territories and $97.5 million for tribal nations, which have largely been cut out of conservation funding, the bill would provide an unprecedented flood of sorely needed conservation cash in perpetuity. The funding will be portioned out based on each state’s size, population, and share of threatened and endangered species. No state would receive less than 1 percent or more than 5 percent of the total.
A comparison of current allocations against projected funding through RAWA shows that Hawaii, Wyoming, and Alabama are the three states set to receive the biggest percentage increase. It also drives home the magnitude of the investments: In 2022 Hawaii received around $561,000 through a federal grant program to protect at-risk species. Should lawmakers approve RAWA, that funding would skyrocket to $38.4 million in 2023 and reach $57 million in 2026, according to NWF.
As in other states, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is funded mainly by fees and taxes levied on hunters, anglers, and recreational shooters, says John Kennedy, its deputy director. That’s not enough revenue to manage both the game animals those groups target and the many other species that need help. “RAWA funding will give us the ability to conserve the full array of fish and wildlife and prevent more species from becoming threatened or endangered,” Kennedy said in an email. And it will go a long way in helping to recover Greater Sage-Grouse and the hundreds of other species that rely on the rapidly shrinking sagebrush ecosystem, he added.
State wildlife agencies have together identified more than 12,000 species that they consider “of greatest conservation need.” Each state has a federally approved wildlife action plan that lays out the habitat management, studies, reintroductions, and other measures needed to protect those species. However, the federal wildlife grant program that is the main funding source for implementing those plans provides less than 5 percent of what’s needed, advocates say. And since wildlife managers lack the resources to keep populations from dwindling, birds and other creatures often don’t get the help they need until they land on the endangered list, at which point saving them is more difficult and costly than it would have been through proactive conservation.
“Bird conservation work is expensive,” says Erik Schneider, policy manager for the National Audubon Society. “Right now there just aren’t enough resources to go around to address all of the needs for birds and conserving the places that they need the most. Ultimately, we’re not going to be able to succeed in turning around these population declines facing birds and other wildlife unless we get a significant increase in funding on the ground.”
RAWA would provide states with the dedicated funding they need to implement their wildlife action plans in a serious way, supporters say. States would be required to put up 25 percent of the funding themselves to unlock federal dollars that they could use to control invasive species, acquire land to protect habitat, educate the public about conservation issues, or otherwise stem wildlife declines. And while the bill’s focus is keeping species off the endangered species list, at least 15 percent of its funding would go toward saving listed species from extinction.
Passing RAWA would be a landmark moment for conservation, advocates say. It could mark the beginning of a turnaround for imperiled species like ʻIʻiwi in Hawaii, Greater Sage-Grouse in Wyoming, and Swallow-tailed Kite in Alabama. It could help to save thousands of other species all over the country. But first it has to make it through Congress.