Wildlife advocates and hunting groups are hopeful that legislation funding wildlife restoration will pass this year after a favorable vote in the U.S. House.

The House of Representatives this week voted 231-190 to approve the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would allocate $1.4 billion annually to fund state and tribal proactive projects aimed at preventing extinction of at-risk species and improving wildlife habitat. Of that total, $97.5 million is set aside specifically for tribal conservation efforts. Now, the only question is whether the Senate will pass the bill before the end of the 117th Congress.

“Tribes have thousands of years of traditional knowledge and a vested interest in solving the biggest challenges facing our fish and wildlife. The missing piece of the puzzle is adequate, sustained resources to build tribal capacity and support their conservation efforts,” said Gloria Tom, director of the Navajo Nation’s Fish and Wildlife Department and member of the National Wildlife Federation’s Board of Directors.

First introduced in the Senate in 2018 by Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, the bill continues to draw some bipartisan backing as sportsmen and wildlife watchers urge their Congressional delegations to support the bill. In the House, 16 Republicans voted in favor, but Rep. Matt Rosendale voted no. In the Senate, Sen. Jon Tester is one of the co-sponsors, but Sen. Steve Daines is not.

“State and tribal wildlife action plans have lacked critical funding for far too long,” said John Gale, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers conservation director. “(The act’s) scope and potential benefits are unprecedented. This legislation will finally equip states and tribes to draw on a broad range of proven management practices, such as active restoration, invasive species removal, research, watershed management and collaborative management across state lines and tribal lands, to effect successful species recovery.”

In the House, Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., introduced the act a year ago. Dingell is a natural choice to sponsor the bill because her late husband, John Dingell, helped pass a similar bill, the Dingell-Johnson Act that funds fisheries management. The $1.3 billion from the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would be divided among the states based on land area and number of sportsmen’s license holders, similar to the Dingell-Johnson or Pittman-Robertson act funding. Montana stands to gain about $27 million each year.

In addition, states must match 25% of the funding and proposed projects need to benefit wildlife listed in each state’s wildlife action plan, which identifies at-risk species and various methods to restore them. The Act requires at least 15% of the funding go toward recovering federally listed threatened and endangered species.

Montana’s 2015 wildlife action plan lists 128 at-risk species. Almost 50 are in critical need of conservation, from the western toad and harlequin duck to the black-footed ferret and grizzly bear. The threats to these species include pollution, climate change, invasive species and accelerating, unchecked development.

Fourteen of the 47 critical species are birds, which shouldn’t be surprising. A 2019 Cornell University study estimated that since 1970, there are 3 billion fewer birds in North America due to loss of habitat, collisions with buildings and other structures and pesticides.

The signs are clear that species are declining, and this bipartisan bill will take great strides towards preventing these species from becoming endangered and avoiding those ‘emergency room’ procedures that are required to recover wildlife when they get to that dangerous point,” said Larry Berrin, Montana Audubon executive director. We are excited to be leading the RAWA coalition in our state to finally get this across the finish.”

Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Alec Underwood said the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act was a common-sense bill that would benefit both sportsmen and landowners in Montana. Underwood used the example of the Big Hole Valley where some landowners agreed to leave more water in the river to keep the arctic grayling off the Endangered Species List. The arctic grayling is one of Montana’s 47 species in critical need, but having more water in the river also helps other trout species that anglers like to catch.

“That dedicated funding would create opportunities to conserve habitat in a voluntary and non-regulatory manner. It’s a commonsense approach that will result in some locally driven efforts to restore those at-risk species. That will benefit rural communities as well, because it will allow the state to create incentives for landowners who want to conserve and restore habitat on their land,” Underwood said. “This will save money in the long run, because it’s a lot less expensive to help species this way than to have to bring them back under the Endangered Species Act.”

The annual $1.4 billion would come from penalties paid by polluters and those convicted of environmental crimes across the nation. When Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., reintroduced the bill in the Senate last July, he said the 10-year-average of such penalty payments is around $1.4 billion so sufficient money is available.

The Senate bill recently passed out of the Environment and Public Works committee and will likely get a vote in the full Senate this summer, said National Wildlife Federation spokesperson Lacey McCormick. With the Senate being almost evenly split between the two parties, it’s harder than the House to get bills through, but McCormick said there’s hope.

“We’ve got Republican support. For example, Sen. (Jim) Inhofe voted for it,” McCormick said, referring to an Oklahoma senator who tends to oppose conservation legislation. “So we’re cautiously optimistic.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.