by Mark Damian Duda, Executive Director, Responsive Management - Friday, May 1, 2020
Surveys have consistently shown that the vast majority of Americans value wildlife. Not everyone will have the opportunity to encounter a moose in the Maine wilderness, an alligator in the wetlands of Louisiana, or a pintail in California’s Suisun Marsh, but most people still want assurance that such wildlife exists, is healthy and will remain sustainable into the future.
Yet while almost everyone agrees that healthy wildlife populations are important, relatively few people realize the extent to which America has long relied on hunters to fund wildlife conservation. Following the passage of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act in 1937, an excise tax was applied to firearms and ammunition—the very items that at the time were being purchased mostly by hunters. (On the aquatic side, similar legislation passed a decade and a half later added an excise tax to fishing equipment as a funding stream for fisheries conservation work.)
Throughout the decades, the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act—or Pittman-Robertson Act, as it is more commonly known—has provided a reliable mechanism for wildlife conservation funding. With revenues from the excise tax apportioned to states and territories based on land area and hunting license sales, hunters have helped to contribute almost $19 billion for species recovery, habitat improvements, biological surveys and other conservation work through their purchases of firearms and ammunition. In 2016 alone, more than $787 million in Wildlife Restoration excise tax revenues was apportioned to fish and wildlife agencies across the country. As the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum website reported in April 2016, the combined total from wildlife and sport fishing funding was $1.1 billion.
Hunters pay for wildlife conservation programs in other important ways. The budgets of state fish and wildlife agencies depend on revenues from hunters’ licenses and permits—these funds are used as a match to the federal aid funds and pay for conservation programs that benefit specific species and types of habitat. At the national level, proceeds from the Federal Duck Stamp (a requirement of all waterfowl hunters) are used to manage wetlands and similar habitats. And hunters also donate to wildlife and conservation non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, such as Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation at rates higher than non-hunters. Together these contributions amount to a critical segment of the overall funding for wildlife conservation in the United States.
Despite the many American conservation success stories from the last century—the recovery of the wild turkey, the whitetail deer, the wood duck and the Rocky Mountain elk, for examples—an unmistakable trend has been taking place for years: Hunting participation in America is declining. While this trend is concerning from multiple perspectives, one of the most immediate implications is the loss of funding support for wildlife conservation. Even the mainstream media has begun to report on what the decline in hunting may mean for the nation’s wildlife. A recent Washington Post article discusses the trend in terms of the direct link between hunters and the management of both game and nongame species alike, including endangered species.
But because the current Pittman-Robertson excise tax is imposed on all firearms, meaning not just rifles and shotguns but also pistols and revolvers, hunters are not alone in funding wildlife conservation. Another important group consists of target and sport shooters, many of whom do not hunt at all. (Archers occupy another seat at the conservation funding table, thanks to an amendment to Pittman-Robertson that made bows and other archery equipment subject to the excise tax.) Interestingly, just as hunting in America has been on the decline in recent years, sport shooting has been on the rise. Roughly a decade’s worth of trend surveys conducted by Responsive Management for the National Shooting Sports Foundation (full report available through the NSSF) found a 51.5 percent increase in sport shooting participation between 2009 and 2018. More than 52 million American adults went target or sport shooting in 2018, compared to just over 34 million in 2009. Firearm sales, boosted by stockpiling and gains in the number of recreational sport shooters, have also risen over the past decade, meaning that an increasing amount of the overall funding for wildlife conservation has been coming from target and sport shooters.
Yet even with sport shooters helping to make up the shortfall in Pittman-Robertson funding caused by the declining revenue from hunters, America’s wildlife conservation needs remain pressing. In fact, the threats to wildlife due to habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, pollution and climate change, to name a few, mean that more money than ever before is necessary to ensure the sustainability of the nation’s wildlife resources. Other threats pertain specifically to hunters, such as increasingly limited access for hunting and persistent anti-hunting sentiment encouraged by animal rights extremist groups. By discouraging participation in hunting, these threats end up diminishing a critical funding source for wildlife conservation.
In short, there is growing recognition that other stakeholders may soon need to join hunters and sport shooters in helping to pay for wildlife conservation. In fact, it is estimated that while sportsmen and women currently provide roughly 80 percent of state wildlife conservation funding, this amount represents only 5 percent of what is needed.
Over the years, attempts to broaden the wildlife conservation funding base have been made at both the state and federal levels, and several of these efforts have been successful. For example, in 1976 a Missouri state constitutional amendment directed revenues from a one-eighth-of-one-percent sales tax to the Missouri Department of Conservation. Since its creation, the Missouri Conservation Sales Tax has generated more than $2 billion. Then in 1996 the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission was one of four state departments that benefited from a one-eighth-of-one-percent general sales tax increase. In 1998, the passage of House Bill 38 in Virginia allocated up to $13 million a year in revenues from an existing sales tax on hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing equipment to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. And in 2008, Minnesota approved an increase of three-eighths of one percent to the state sales and use tax to provide additional revenue for conservation.
At the federal level, the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (commonly known as CARA) in 2000 would have directed more than $3 billion annually from oil and gas revenues to wildlife conservation. CARA never became law, although the State Wildlife Grants (SWG) program was established by Congress to assist state fish and wildlife agencies with funding for wildlife conservation needs. However, unlike Pittman-Robertson, SWG is a discretionary program funded through annual Congressional appropriations.
A current effort to address America’s urgent conservation funding needs is the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA), proposed bipartisan legislation that would provide more than $1 billion annually from general treasury funds to state fish and wildlife agencies for wildlife conservation work. This legislation followed a recommendation from the Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources, a task force made up of representatives from the conservation community and the outdoor industry, to “expand the number of citizens who invest in nature.”
Apart from legislation, the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation continue to positively impact funding for wildlife conservation through the protection of personal firearms ownership and sport shooting opportunities. These efforts are what help to bolster wildlife conservation funding through the existing Pittman-Robertson excise tax mechanism.
Given the recent legislative developments and continued interest in securing funding for America’s wildlife, it is all but inevitable that conservation efforts may soon benefit from funding sources beyond Pittman-Robertson and the direct expenditures of hunters, sport shooters and archers. New funding sources will necessarily be accompanied by new perspectives, and while this may seem like an uncertain or even risky prospect, the sheer magnitude of the threats to wildlife today means that everyone, even non-hunters, must work together toward a common goal.
This concept is not new. Prior to the passage of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act in 1937, Aldo Leopold, considered the father of wildlife conservation in the United States, noted the following: “No game program can command the goodwill or funds necessary to success without harmonious cooperation between sportsmen and other conservationists. To this end, sportsmen must recognize conservation as one integral whole of which game restoration is only a part.”
What is undeniable is the lasting impact made possible through the support and advocacy of generations of hunters over the past century. The health and diversity of North America’s wildlife today would not be what it is without hunters. Sportsmen and women have always been at the center of wildlife conservation in America, from their expenditures and donations that benefit wildlife to their hands-on management efforts in the field. The expansion of the wildlife conservation funding base to include other groups is not a bad thing since the result will be what hunters have always strived for: the effective conservation of the nation’s wildlife resources.
About the Author
Mark Damian Duda is the founder and executive director of Responsive Management, having led the firm since its inception in 1990. He holds a master’s degree with an emphasis on natural resource policy and planning from Yale University, where he attended on two academic scholarships. Duda has conducted more than 1,000 studies on how people relate to the outdoors. He is the author of four books on wildlife and outdoor recreation, including “The Sportsman’s Voice: Hunting and Fishing in America" and "Watching Wildlife.” A certified wildlife biologist, his research has been upheld in U.S. courts, used in peer-reviewed journals and presented at major natural resource and outdoor recreation conferences around the world. His work has been featured in many of the nation’s top media. For seven years, he served as a columnist for North American Hunter and North American Fisherman magazines.
Duda was named Conservation Educator of the Year by the Florida Wildlife Federation and National Wildlife Federation, was a recipient of the Conservation Achievement Award from the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and was named Wildlife Professional of the Year by the Virginia Wildlife Society. He also received the Conservation Achievement Award in Communications from Ducks Unlimited and an award from the Potomac Ducks Unlimited Chapter for his contributions as a researcher and writer. Duda also was honored as Researcher of the Year by the National Shooting Sports Foundation and received the 2016 Distinguished Leadership Award from the National Rifle Association. He is an avid hunter, sport shooter, angler, boater and birdwatcher.
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