A bill sponsored by New Mexico’s senior U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) to fund conservation of threatened and endangered species advanced in Congress this week, receiving its first hearing in the U.S. Senate.
Co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) would, if passed, provide $1.3 billion in federal funds aimed at conservation efforts of 12,000 species across the country.
Another $97.5 million would be provided to Tribal nations under the Act, funding conservation efforts on about 140 million acres of Indigenous lands.
The bill would also specify that wildlife recovery be guided by the states themselves through state-level Wildlife Recovery Plans, and would appropriate fines from environmental violations to support the RAWA’s provisions.
Heinrich estimated the bill would accelerate recovery of 1,600 species nationwide that are already listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
During the Wednesday hearing, Heinrich argued the Act was a bipartisan effort supported by Blunt and other GOP senators, and would mark a meaningful action to protect the environment.
The bill was heard in the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and faces a future vote for its advancement toward becoming law.
He said the ESA’s programs were successful in the past but needed continued financial support from Congress to maintain the U.S.’ conservation needs.
In Heinrich’s own state of New Mexico, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed the lesser prairie chicken be listed as endangered in New Mexico, but conservationists struggled to allocate and develop lands as strongholds for the bird whose population dwindled as low as 1,500 in recent studies.
The state’s last-remaining native mollusk the Texas hornshell mussel was listed as endangered in 2018, and federal regulators were working to devise a critical habitat – lands set aside from development — to allow the mussel’s population to grow and its range to expand.
Work like that requires federal funds, Heinrich said, to avoid extinction.
Earlier this year, Fish and Wildlife called for removal of 23 species from its listings, deeming them extinct with no reports of sightings for most since the 1980s or earlier.
“Without enough resources, our state, local, and Tribal wildlife agencies have been forced to pick and choose which species are worthy of their attention,” Heinrich said before the Committee.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change this paradigm and save thousands of species with a solution that matches the magnitude of the challenge.”
Through conserving species like the hornshell, which requires healthy river conditions to survive, Heinrich said America’s natural resources like outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing would be protected for future generations, while also stimulating the economy and creating jobs.
“These projects will create substantial economic benefits, including good-paying jobs in rural communities,” he said. “They will preserve outdoor recreation activities like hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing that support millions of additional jobs all across our country.”
New Mexico U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) signed on as co-sponsor of the RAWA earlier this fall, contending it would help address the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation.
“As the climate crisis continues to threaten our way of life, our country cannot lose sight of the countless endangered species that are also at risk,” Lujan said. “That’s why I’m proud to join Sen. Heinrich to introduce legislation to protect endangered species and provide critical resources to prevent other wildlife from facing extinction.”
The bill was also supported by New Mexico’s Democrat U.S. Reps. Teresa Leger Fernandez and Melanie Stansbury, who signed onto the U.S. House version.
New Mexico’s only Republican congressperson U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell was not listed as a co-sponsor as of Thursday and introduced a bill in October that would allow Fish and Wildlife to exclude lands from critical habitat designations in favor of development like oil and gas extraction.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service must be allowed to take into account these economic impacts when deciding what land will be the most restricted for use and designated as critical habitat,” Herrell said in a statement. “Without this discretion, jobs will be lost and our way of life in southern New Mexico will be under threat.”
In his remarks to the committee, Blunt said the bill would help restore his state’s grasslands and lead to the regrowth of several bird species while bolstering outdoor recreation and wildlife for all Americans.
“This bill would help fund critical conservation habitat in Missouri’s grasslands to help promote species like the bob-white quail, meadow larks, and greater prairie chickens,” he said. “It will also help protect and restore wetlands that support species like the wood ducks.
“The bill would ensure more wildlife viewing opportunities, which directly contributes to millions of jobs and billions in annual consumer spending.”
In addition to 32 Republican and Democrat cosponsors in the Senate, the bill was also supported by conservation groups across the nation.
Collin O’Mara, chief executive officer of the National Wildlife Federation said more than a third of species of wildlife, fish and plants faced “heightened risk” of going extinct, worsened by climate change and extreme weather events like drought and wildfires.
“America’s wildlife is in crisis,” O’Mara said. “Climate change is only accelerating the decline of species from our backyards to the backcountry. “The costs of failing to stem this rising tide of growing threats of extinction through proactive, preventative measures are high.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.