Who Really Cares About Conservation?

Who Really Cares About Conservation?

“Who cares?” The words can be a serious question or a brusque dismissal. With regard to wildlife, caring occurs on various levels from generally passive and appreciative to real hands-on care. This point was made clearly some years ago when I championed the value of sport hunting in a live debate with a noted anti-hunting zealot on the radio program “U.S. Radio Daily.”

The radio in my official state wildlife-conservation-officer vehicle was always set on an AM news/talk station. Upon going on patrol one morning, these words grabbed my ears: “Our topic for today is Sport Hunting—Pro or Con.” Rushing to my home office, I dialed the 800 number for the call-in show.

The guest headed one of the country’s top animal-rights extremist organizations. Her opening remarks about the wrongs of sport hunting equaled a slap in the face and a challenge to a duel. When the show host learned of my wildlife-related profession, he chortled, “Oh, this ought to be good.”

When the host announced the call was from a Pennsylvania wildlife professional, the guest—let’s call her Heidi—launched into a tirade about a well-known annual live pigeon shoot. Her tactic was typical of anti-hunters: Change or pervert the subject. Heidi was unsuccessful because pigeons are not considered wildlife in Pennsylvania and are not regulated by game laws or hunted. Suggesting we address the actual show topic, I asked, “What does your organization actually do for wildlife?”

Eager to promote her anti-hunting agenda, she said it ran ads and articles promoting wildlife protection and the purported atrocities of hunting. When she finished, breathless, I again asked, “But what do you actually do to benefit wildlife?”

She made attempts to answer but failed. The sum of her organization’s caring was, and is, a public relations campaign to denigrate sport hunting in America. The door opened for me to list the numerous benefits hunters provide to wildlife. Proof of hunters’ generosity is everywhere, yet the hunting community is generally quiet about it.

Exhibit A: The Federal Duck Stamp
For one example, I noted it is rare to hear any hunter complain about the cost of hunting licenses and/or stamps such as the successful Federal Waterfowl Stamp, or duck stamp. Proceeds protect and enhance the prairie pothole regions of Canada and mid-western states where many North American ducks nest. They also fund research and population monitoring. For years, hunters actually paid to not hunt the coveted wood duck as thousands of duck hunters built and erected wood duck nesting boxes at their personal expense. The purchase of migratory bird-hunting permits is also mandatory for those pursuing woodcock, snipe, doves and rails. Many states also require state-specific stamps or permits to fund ongoing research. Why? Because hunters care about wildlife.

More Cases in Point
Sportsmen’s dollars from license fees are complemented by the Pittman-Robertson excise tax on firearms and ammunition that makes my home state of Pennsylvania ultra-friendly for wildlife. While supporting one of the continent’s largest whitetail deer populations and the nation’s largest overall black bears, Pennsylvania’s wild turkeys have helped restore turkey populations across the eastern United States.

Much of this success is due to the state’s 1.5 million acres of public State Game Lands. Managed by law “for the benefit of wildlife,” every acre was purchased with hunters’ monies. These dollars also fund wildlife habitat enhancement on private lands open to public hunting.

Another example of hunter’s dollars at work is Ohio’s MaGee Marsh on Lake Erie’s south shore east of Toledo. Every May, thousands of migrating warblers use the marsh to refuel for the flight across the Great Lake to nesting grounds in the North. These birds are met by avid birdwatchers and photographers who marvel at this natural phenomenon while traversing the marsh on a boardwalk. This site was purchased and is maintained by hunters’ dollars yet hunters demand no user fees from non-hunters. A sign at the visitor’s center subtly notes hunters’ funding.

The amount of state and federal dollars from our license fees and excise taxes is staggering yet this dynamic is similar to that innocuous sign: Few know about it, and the antis don’t care. Perhaps such modesty by America’s hunting community is why so few outdoor writers extol the virtues of hunter-funded wildlife management. The same is true of fishermen’s contributions via licenses and the Dingle-Johnson tax on fishing equipment. In addition, sportsmen provide additional support through membership in wildlife conservation organizations—the National Wild Turkey Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Trout Unlimited, to name a few.

Anti-Hunters Exposed
My best point illustrated the benefit of sport hunting to all wildlife species. Secondary was the revelation that anti-hunting organizations like Heidi’s spend their donations on emotional appeals that yield no wildlife benefits.

Heidi had no answer to questions such as: How many acres of wildlife habitat has your organization purchased and set aside for wildlife? How many wildlife food plots, cover strips, brush piles, tree plantings, forest edge-enhancement cuts, and more, have you provided for wildlife? How many wildlife nesting structures such as wood duck, bluebird, wren, kestrel, bat, and barn owl boxes have you built or purchased and placed for wildlife?

I noted Pennsylvania’s Game Code, which mandates that $4.25 from each resident and nonresident license sold and a minimum of $2 from each antlerless deer license sold must support habitat improvement, development and maintenance to aid the natural propagation of wildlife. Similar funding streams exist in other states. It is reasonable to believe that Heidi and her ilk know this—but just don’t care. Hunters care.

Preach to the Public
Heidi knows her audience is not sportsmen. The non-hunting, non-fishing public is generally unbiased—fertile ground for seeds of misinformation. We must target non-hunters with the truth about who cares for wildlife. And they care, too. They just need to know hunters and fishermen care enough to put their money where their mouth is. As groups like the NRA and its Hunters’ Leadership Forum have said, stop singing to the choir. We must tell our story outside our fraternities and demand our wildlife and fisheries agencies join the chorus.

Our radio conversation ended with an admonition that the best thing Heidi and other anti-hunters can do to benefit wildlife was to purchase hunting and fishing licenses and guns and ammo to pay into the Pittman-Robertson Fund. With funds distributed back to the states in proportion to the number of hunting licenses sold annually, Pennsylvania garners a good share of these taxes. During the fiscal year of 2008-2009, for example, this wildlife restoration grant returned the largest amount ever to Pennsylvania:  $12,236,088. For 2015-2016, Pennsylvania’s number tripled to a whopping $33,664,721.

Across America, outdoorsmen and women will notice signs on certain public lands noting they were purchased with Pittman-Robertson funds. In my area, a 600-plus-acre scrub oak improvement area on a state game land attracts wildlife to its mast. On the opening day of the 2012 deer season, one of that county’s best bucks ever was taken. One of this project’s key goals was to improve habitat conditions for golden-winged warblers. Not a single hunter complained. We are proud of our vital role in habitat improvement. While costly, efforts yield priceless returns in wildlife abundance.

So who really cares about wildlife? If you’re a hunter, trapper and/or fisherman, pat yourself on the back. You care—and you prove it—by generously funding wildlife management benefiting game and non-game wildlife species that are enjoyed by all. Be proud of your stewardship and tell your non-hunting friends about it.