A bill to conserve endangered species — from the red-cockaded woodpecker to the snuffbox mussel — was passed by the U.S. House in a 231-to-190 vote on Tuesday.
The Recovering America's Wildlife Act would create an annual fund of more than $1.3 billion, given to states, territories, and tribal nations for wildlife conservation on the ground. While threatened species have been defined and protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1973, that law does not provide robust funding to proactively maintain their numbers.
The effort comes as scientists and international organizations sound the alarm about accelerating species decline.
"Too many people don't realize ... that roughly one-third of our wildlife is at increased risk of extinction," said lead House sponsor Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, echoing a recent study about climate change.
In the United States, there are more than 1,600 endangered or threatened species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but state agencies have identified more than 7 times that number in need of conservation assistance in their wildlife action plans.
"The bottom line is, when we save wildlife we save for ourselves," said Collin O'Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, which supports the bill. He said species loss threatens everything from the insects that pollinate plants in the food chain, to sea life that helps to insulate coastlines from storm surge.
The bill would amend a 1937 law, the Pittman-Robertson Act, which was passed in response to dwindling game and waterfowl species. That law allows states to tax hunting supplies to pay for wildlife and habitat restoration, but that money is not enough to do the same for non-game species, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The act would also invest more in conservation than the existing program for threatened non-game species, called the State Wildlife Grant Program, which awarded states a total of $56 million this year.
One major stumbling block remains: how to pay for this investment.
Supporters continue to hash out the details, while critics such as Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) called the current draft "regrettably flawed" because it would create a new permanent spending program. He urged members to vote against it.
The bill would require that 15% of all conservation money go to restoring populations of federally-listed endangered species.
On Monday, the White House released a statement, saying it "strongly supports" the goals of the bill.
Companion legislation in the Senate has 16 GOP co-sponsors.