WASHINGTON – The Walker River Paiute Tribe, located in Schurz, Nevada, is not bear country. But because of the wildfires ravaging California, these animals are escaping to new and safer habitats, some of which lie within Native American territory.
The federal government historically has given comparatively little conservation funding to tribal lands, so suddenly having to deal with an influx of animals like bears means Indigenous people have to make do with little or no resources.
“Fish and wildlife, they don’t know the boundary lines,” Elveda Martinez, president of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society and member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, told Capital News Service. “That bear that’s down here in our community, he didn’t stop at the reservation boundary and say, ‘Oh, I can’t go on that. I can’t go on that reservation because they don’t have any funding to deal with me. They have no funding to track me. They have no way to save me.’”
That may change.
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, introduced in April by Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, and Jeff Fortenberry, R-Nebraska, includes the aid that Indigenous people have been seeking for decades.
The bill redirects $1.3 billion of existing revenue to state-led wildlife conservation efforts, as well as $97.5 million to tribal-led efforts.
Tribal lands provide habitat for over 525 federally-listed threatened and endangered species across nearly 140 million acres of land, many of which have great cultural significance to Native American tribes.
Martinez’s bear problem is just a blip on a wide radar of conservation-related problems that her tribe is left to solve with minimal resources.
Under the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, which dates to 1937, states and territories are allocated funds for restoration and conservation efforts annually. According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disbursed nearly $19 billion dollars to states and territories between 1939 and 2019. Other than a small number of grants, no other conservation money was given to tribal lands.
“Right now, there’s really no funding for tribal fish and wildlife out there,” Martinez said. “There’s no funding for tribes to build capacity for those different issues. Right now, the Tribes, we all fight over $4 to $6 million for tribal wildlife grants that come through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Like the 50 states, all 574 federally-recognized Native American tribes in the United States are unique. Some, like the Navajo Nation, have millions of acres of land, while others do not have any territory at all.
”The needs are just as diverse as the Tribes themselves,” Julie Thorstenson, executive director of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, said. “Sometimes I see them using (funds) to continue the work that they’re already doing, maybe to expand into research or build capacity. And other tribes, it might mean just getting started developing their fish and wildlife programs.”
The grants given to tribes by the federal government have primarily gone to tackling immediate needs, but do not have enough substance to leave a lasting impact, according to tribal leaders.
“There’s just not enough money,” Martinez said. “And then again, if you get a grant, you might be able to do a little project. But once that grant is over, it’s like, ‘Okay, now, what do I do now?’”
The Dingell-Fortenberry legislation has gained momentum since it was introduced, drawing support from both sides of the aisle and backing from numerous nonprofit organizations.
“RAWA is the single most exciting public policy development in conservation in decades,” Rep. Fortenberry said in a press release. “It protects ecosystems, enhances community, supports recreation. It’s why we have a diverse group of persons, from across the political spectrum–– sportsmen, hunters, anglers, birdwatchers ––aligned so beautifully around this bill.”
“There’s been a real kind of evolution or revitalization over the last five or six years,” said Garrit Voggesser, tribal partnership director for the National Wildlife Federation. “Tribes have really raised their voices about their rights… as communities and cultures to be negatively impacted by development, and also to have the opportunities to protect their connection with the land and wildlife.”
Efforts to provide conservation aid to tribes come as those tribes also struggle, like the rest of the planet, with climate change.
“Our people are called the trout eaters, we’re the Agai-Dicutta,” Martinez said. “But we’re losing our culture because there’s no trout in our lake….It’s because of climate change.”
Funding to address climate issues on Martinez’s reservation, as well as on others around the United States, is included in a massive Democratic reconciliation package.
Within the $25.6 billion for climate funding, $6.3 billion is earmarked for tribal lands. At the moment, prospects for the reconciliation measure are unclear.
Native Americans across the United States are watching the Congress closely to see what happens to the conservation and wildlife aid bill.
“If it doesn’t (pass), I think tribes will muster strength and we’ll figure out how to take another crack at it,” Voggesser said. “The majority of tribes will continue to move forward. But dealing with what’s happening to wildlife and habitat, primarily because of climate, but also human development, it’s going to become more challenging if there aren’t additional resources to address protection of wildlife and habitat.”