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Opinion Congress has a chance to pass the most significant conservation law in decades

An American Bald eagles catches a fish on the Susquehanna river at the base of the Conowingo Dam in Darlington, Md. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

U.S. lawmakers are bitterly divided on many subjects, environmental issues chief among them. But Congress could be on the verge of passing the most significant conservation law in decades — with bipartisan support.

The Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, has long been the federal government’s primary tool for conservation. More than 1,600 plant and animal species have been listed as endangered or threatened under the landmark law, which gives them protections and resources to aid their recovery. This has saved some creatures on the brink of disappearing in the wild, from beloved bald eagles to lesser-known black-footed ferrets.

Yet today, one-third of U.S. wildlife and fish species face “increased risk of extinction.” While the number of species listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has steadily grown, funding has not kept up. Because more species are under threat than can feasibly be protected, officials are forced to make difficult prioritizing decisions. And even when species are saved, their populations often hover around the minimum viable range for survival, which is too low to thrive.

Though advocates, landowners and authorities might disagree on where the existing framework falls short, most stakeholders believe it can be improved. That is the impetus for the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. The House bill, introduced by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and then-Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), passed 231-190 in June. Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) have introduced a version in the Senate, where it has 16 Republican co-sponsors.

The bill would provide nearly $1.4 billion annually to protect vulnerable wildlife and help them recover. This includes species classified as endangered or threatened — and thousands more that are at varying degrees of risk but do not face immediate peril. Experts believe that protecting species before they need to be listed would be a more efficient strategy. Mr. Heinrich likens this to investing in primary health care rather than waiting for a trip to the emergency room.

Crucially, resources would be directed to states, territories and tribal nations to enact jurisdiction-specific plans. This would fund and empower bodies that understand local contexts and have the trust of their communities — and avoid the cumbersome processes that come with federal intervention. States, which take the lead on most wildlife management, have had action plans in place since 2005, but they are chronically underfunded. Tribes, meanwhile, do not receive dedicated federal funding for conservation. The bill would bridge that gap.

While the House bill was not paid for, the Senate version hopes to at least partially offset new spending with penalties and fines from “environmental-related violations.” A smart idea under consideration would be to combine the bill with other legislation, introduced by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), to close loopholes on charitable deductions for conservation easements. These tax breaks were created to encourage landowners to preserve land but have been heavily misused. Whether this measure will gain enough support in the Senate remains to be seen, but momentum around the wildlife bill is growing.

Nearly 50 years after the Endangered Species Act passed Congress with resounding support from both sides of the aisle, it is encouraging to see bipartisan legislation to protect our nation’s biodiversity gain traction. It will be even more heartening if the Senate decisively passes it.

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