Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1980

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Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1980

James F. Van Orden

Excerpt from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1980

(a) Findings The Congress finds and declares the following:

  1. Fish and wildlife are of ecological, educational, esthetic, cultural, recreational, economic, and scientific value to the nation.
  2. The improved conservation and management of fish and wildlife, particularly nongame fish and wildlife, will assist in restoring and maintaining fish and wildlife and in assuring a productive and more esthetically pleasing environment for all citizens.

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1980 (FWCA) (P.L. 96-366, 94 Stat. 1322), or "Nongame Act," was designed to support state efforts to protect the 83 percent of fish and wildlife species that were neglected under prior American law. EPA Administrator Russell Train had complained that "97 percent of federal money for wildlife management 'goes to less than three percent of the speciesthe ones used for hunting, fishing and trapping'" (Washington Post, October 7, 1976). In addition, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) protected only those species near extinction. The FWCA attempted to fill the gap left by these laws and provide measures to protect nongame species that were diminishing due to habitat loss from development and other environmental ills such as pollution. Congress recognized that people place many different values on wildlife resources, including ecological, cultural, scientific, and recreational values. Therefore, the FWCA took steps to protect species before they became imperiled and merited ESA protection.

The constitutional foundation for this law is the commerce clause, which allows Congress to regulate commerce among the several states (Article I, section 8). Congress called upon state wildlife agencies to inventory their wildlife resources and assess the status of their species, and ultimately to develop statewide conservation plans. Plans would be submitted to the Secretary of the Interior for approval. Next, states were to take the necessary actions set forth in their conservation plans. They could apply for federal reimbursement of much of the cost associated with developing, revising, or implementing plans that were ultimately approved. Generally, the law provided for federal and state partnerships, whereby the federal government would provide technical and financial support to the states.

The FWCA reflected the notion that fish and wildlife resources are best managed at the state level due to the understanding within states of their unique resources. It also recognized that the problem of species loss crosses state and even national boundaries, creating a need for coordination among states, as well as federal financial support of protection of wildlife resources that benefit all Americans. Finally, it encouraged federal agencies and departments to use their statutory and administrative authority to the maximum extent possible in order to conserve and protect nongame species and their habitats.

The source of federal funding for state conservation plans was widely debated. Other game-focused wildlife laws had successfully raised funds through excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment. Advocates for the FWCA hoped to find a similar stream of money for nongame efforts, and called for an 11 percent tax on birdseed and birdfeeders. This provision ultimately was dropped from the text of the act because it would not have raised much and it would disproportionately harm the small birdseed and bird feeder industry. Instead, the act called for the use of the general tax revenues of the federal government while the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) studied other funding options. Also, it provided funds only for vertebrates because including the daunting number of invertebrates would spread federal resources too thin.

Although the FWS studied funding options, it failed to recommend any in the years following. A reliance on general federal revenues has since proven to be inadequate. In 1988, when Congress revisited the act, it had yet to be funded at all. Ronald Lambertson of the FWS testified that forty-nine states used portions of their budgets for nongame activities, and twenty-three states had actually undertaken comprehensive planning. Consensus arose among state agencies, biologists, and environmentalists that federal funding would foster many other important nongame conservation activities that were then neglected at the state level for lack of funds.

It was not until 2001 that Congress actually appropriated money to the states through the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants program. It was funded at $80 million per year beginning in fiscal year 2002 to fund state and tribal conservation efforts. Federal aid has since gone to aid the fish and wildlife agencies in all fifty states. In fiscal year 2002 the Fish and Wildlife Service dispersed a total of $77.6 million dollars through this program to states and territories. The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act has authorized a large amount of nongame research and planning at the federal level, and over two decades after its enactment, the key state conservation plan funding mechanism is in place.

See also: Endangered Species Act; Marine Mammal Protection Act.


Bean, Michael J. The Evolution of National Wildlife Law. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1983.

"Policy on Wildlife." Washington Post (October 7, 1976).

Musgrave, Ruth S., and Judy Flynn-O'Brien, et al. Federal Wildlife Laws Handbook with Related Laws. Rockville, MD: Government Institutes, 1998.

"State Wildlife Grants Apportionment for FY 2002." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. <>.

Subcommittee on Environmental Protection, One Hundredth Congress. Reauthorization of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1980 (1988): 34.