Recovering America’s Wildlife Act: a needed tool to protect wildlife

Funding for state wildlife agencies can help save America’s wildlife. More than 12,000 species are in need of conservation assistance.

Nathan4847 |
One big majestic bison standing in a tall field of golden grass.

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With our roads, cities, buildings, farms, ranches and more, we have changed the surface of this planet and have stressed the ecosystems that support its rich tapestry of life.

Now, it’s time to ensure that our story of progress doesn’t take us backwards when it comes to protecting and saving America’s wildlife. 

There were 30 million bison

When much of the country was untamed, bison didn’t just roam the plains, they covered it, dominated it. Thirty million or more grumpy bulls, cows and playful calves fed on the grasslands and prairie. Pushed to the very brink of extinction, bison have partially recovered, but today there are still only about 31,000 wild bison in North America.

Fewer birds in the sky

There are 3 billion fewer birds in North America than in 1970. The stat isn’t about any one species or about extinction per se. It’s about the total number of birds across all species. The skies are missing a staggering number of our feathered friends, and our yards and parks are less full of birdsong. 

USFWS | Public Domain
Birds flying

Disappearing bees 

If a bee can be adorable, it has to be the bumblebee. Fuzzy and seemingly clumsy, they rumble and bumble from flower to flower, except in the states where certain species no longer buzz. The American bumblebee has nearly vanished from eight states, and may soon be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Similarly, the southern plains bumblebee is a candidate for the endangered species list. The rusty patched bumblebee is already on it, and the western bumblebee isn’t faring well. The list of struggling native bees goes on. Pesticides and habitat loss are the drivers.

HeikeFrohnhoff |
A bumblebee

We can do better than this

Whether it’s mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects or fish, so many species are migrating toward extinction. In the U.S., more than 1,300 species need the protections of the Endangered Species Act, our nation’s premier wildlife protection law. They are either threatened or worse, endangered. The queue to get on the list is so long that many threatened species remain unprotected because others are ahead of them in line.

Extinction is forever and brutal, but America’s wildlife story isn’t limited to just that. The missing 3 billion birds adds to the story, reminding us that even when a species hasn’t slipped so far that it’s threatened or endangered, the slippage is still a major concern, i.e. ecosystems are less healthy and our lives are less rich.

Nature is declining, and we would be wise to protect species and their habitats before the “emergency room” care of the Endangered Species Act kicks in. This is the idea behind a bill called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.

12,000 species in America in need

State wildlife agencies have identified 12,000 species that are in need of conservation efforts. Some of these species are already covered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Some are covered by state endangered species laws. Others are simply slipping.

For instance:

Monarch butterflies are not yet on the federal Endangered Species list, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will revisit this topic. In the meantime, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, California, Georgia and 25 other states have the monarch on their state wildlife action plans. (More on these wildlife plans in a bit.)

Certain populations of salmon in the Pacific Northwest are listed as endangered, and while populations are faring better in Alaska, the Last Frontier state also has salmon on its wildlife action plan because of declining salmon runs

Sockeye Salmon
NPS / D. Young. 2003 | Public Domain
Sockeye Salmon

Wolverines were recently protected under the Endangered Species Act. But even before the wolverine was added to the federal list, the animal was on state wildlife action plans in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. 

Moose are giant and magnificent. If you’re in the presence of one and it licks its lips, get out of there. Moose were considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Even though it’s not on the ESA list, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan Minnesota and New York all have plans to protect moose via their state wildlife action plans. 

moose in forest with fall leaves
Lois Smith via Flickr | CC-BY-2.0
Bull moose in Maine woods

What is a state wildlife action plan?

All 50 states have a state wildlife action plan. These plans are required by Congress, and they are blueprints for protecting wildlife in the state. Each state created a plan in 2005 and 2015, and the next iteration will be in 2025.

The concept is that state wildlife officials have the knowledge and the boots on the ground to see which species are declining and in need of additional conservation efforts.

These state plans are incredibly valuable, but they lack the key ingredient: funding needed to carry out the work.

Recovering America’s Wildlife Act

There’s a bipartisan bill in Congress that would provide more than $1 billion per year to states, as well as funding for tribes. The bill is led by Senators Martin Heinrich from New Mexico and Thom Tillis from North Carolina.

Here’s what each said about the bill:

Sen. Heinrich said: “Without enough resources, state and Tribal wildlife agencies have been forced to pick and choose which species are worth saving. Instead of doing the proactive work that is necessary to maintain healthy wildlife populations on the front end, they have been forced into using reactive measures to rescue species after they are listed as threatened or endangered. We urgently need to change this paradigm.”

Sen. Tillis said: “Congress has a long history of being champions of conservation efforts in the U.S. to protect our unmatched landscape and wildlife population. Today, we are facing another crisis with too many fish and wildlife being placed on the endangered species list, negatively impacting businesses, farmers, and landowners. This situation must be avoided at all costs, and [my bill] gives state and tribal wildlife commissions the tools needed to perform proactive, on-the-ground conservation to prevent threatened species from becoming endangered.”

The U.S. House passed the bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act by a vote of 231-190 in the last Congress. Rep. Debbie Dingell from Michigan and then-Rep. Jeff Fortenberry from Nebraska introduced the bill. We look forward to the reintroduction of the House bill soon.

Let’s save America’s wildlife

The bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is a bold vision and pragmatic approach to helping species in need. Combining it with other existing wildlife and habitat laws would prove massively beneficial for wildlife, and it would ensure that our lives are blessed with more nature and ongoing sightings of the magnificent creatures we share this planet with, from bison to moose to monarch butterflies to wolverines to salmon to bees. And so much more.



Steve Blackledge

Senior Director, Conservation America Campaign, Environment America

Steve directs Environment America’s efforts to protect our public lands and waters and the species that depend on them. He led our successful campaign to win full and permanent funding for our nation’s best conservation and recreation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He previously oversaw U.S. PIRG’s public health campaigns. Steve lives in Sacramento, California, with his family, where he enjoys biking and exploring Northern California.

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