Every year, millions of hunters and anglers enter the wilderness to capture wildlife. Once seen as an authentic symbol of American life, these activities have since become controversial. Regardless of how individuals feel about outdoor enthusiasts posing with captured wildlife, one group consistently remains jubilant: state wildlife officials.
These wildlife officials celebrate a high number of hunters and anglers for one simple reason—funding. Revenue from hunting and fishing is a primary source of conservation funding that enables governments to protect and preserve wildlife for generations to come. Effective conservation activities such as defining and enforcing hunting regulations, protecting wildlife habitat, and persistent research and monitoring of targeted wildlife are responsible for the recovery of iconic species like the wood duck, white-tailed deer, and wild turkeys.
So why celebrate captured wildlife? Because approximately 80 percent of funding for state wildlife agencies come from hunters and anglers.
But today, state wildlife officials continually find themselves in a losing battle. The number of hunters and anglers has been in steady decline, with large cohorts expected to drop off in the next few decades. How are wildlife officials to protect America’s treasured wildlife with ever-decreasing funding?
Although some federal and private solutions are being discussed, most conservation happens at the state level. Keeping this in mind, Americans need to be aware of how the current funding system is falling short and what viable alternatives have been tested at a state level. This knowledge can assist groups and individuals in making meaningful changes to bolster long-term conservation efforts.
Shifting attitudes on wildlife
Over time, there has been a steady decline in hunters and anglers. Americans have become more concerned about coexisting with wildlife rather than dominating it. For example, a 2017 study highlighted a growing backlash towards American hunting culture, and only 37 percent of Americans declared that it was acceptable to hunt for a trophy.
There are numerous factors that have led to this noticeable shift in attitudes, but the overwhelming force in the decline of hunting and fishing has been modernization. Higher levels of income, education, and urbanization have been linked to stronger beliefs in wildlife conservation. This is likely the main reason for the growing number of Americans who identify themselves as conservationists. In a 2016 report, 79 percent of Americans identified themselves as conservationists, and 82% endorsed the idea that wildlife possesses intrinsic value beyond simply being considered a natural resource. Regardless of motivation, new generations of Americans are simply choosing other hobbies over the pastime of hunting and fishing.
Considering these cultural changes, the current conservation model needs an update. In the late nineteenth century, the majority of Americans viewed wildlife as an exploitable natural resource. This was the point in time when governments began to manage and regulate wildlife. We inherited our existing conservation model from a time when perceptions and attitudes towards wildlife were dramatically different than they are now.
The current state of wildlife funding
The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (NAM) is considered one of the most successful conservation models in the world. Under the public trust doctrine, wildlife is considered a public resource in the United States. Because of these legal declarations, NAM was established to provide annual funding to properly manage fish and wildlife.
These conservation principles, which were established in the early 20th century, led to the funding of wildlife conservation through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses along with excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment. Because it connects hunters and anglers to wildlife, this model of funding is often referred to as a ‘user play, user pay’ (or ‘user pay, user benefit’) system.
The two federal laws that have provided the majority of funding for NAM are the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act (PR) and the Dingell-Johnson Act (DJ). PR collects an excise tax on all firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment, whereas the DJ collects an excise tax on all fishing and boating equipment. Funding from these acts are apportioned to states based on different ratios of population, hunters and anglers, and land area. Both of these acts are seen as fundamental funding mechanisms for NAM. However, since the 2010s, much more funding has come from the PR act, which has created a large focus on the hunters rather than the anglers.
Currently, less than 4 percent of Americans are hunters compared to nearly 8 percent in 1960. This has led wildlife funding to be squeezed across the nation as wildlife agencies attempt to increase the number of hunters. These efforts to increase hunters are primarily done through R3 programs, which seek to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters and anglers.
This focus spurred the introduction of a bill to revise the PR act called Modernizing the Pittman-Robertson Fund for Tomorrow’s Needs Act. It would provide $5 million dollars for state spending on R3 efforts. Although R3 efforts have had some success, results are difficult to measure and some claim that R3 efforts are failing to make a meaningful difference.
The NAM was meant to evolve and serve our wilderness through support from those who enjoy it most. This demographic has shifted. Americans may be increasingly less interested in hunting and fishing, but that doesn’t mean that the outdoors are empty. In fact, they're rather crowded.
Wildlife impacts more than just hunters and anglers
If you feel like more Americans are enjoying the outdoors, you’re not wrong. Changing American attitudes, coupled with the recent COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented interest in outdoor activities. Americans are even migrating westward primarily for outdoor recreation. In 2020, a record-breaking 53 percent of Americans ages six and over participated in outdoor recreation.
However, as engagement in outdoor recreation continues to increase, many Americans don’t realize the environmental or economic costs tied to their outdoor visits. Aside from the traditional maintenance and erosion caused by outdoor visitors, the boom in outdoor recreation has created new problems and costs across the nation, ranging from wildlife harassment with drones, to overwhelmed sewage systems in national parks.
Among the many reasons Americans have to get outside, wildlife viewing is at the top of the list. A reported 86 million people participate annually in animal viewings compared to the 11.5 million people who engaged in hunting. Maintaining healthy wildlife populations is a critical aspect of preserving not only healthy ecosystems, but also enjoyable outdoor experiences for Americans.
Even for Americans who don’t find themselves participating in outdoor recreation or wildlife viewing, this issue is becoming increasingly important. Because of the ongoing patterns of migration and development, wildlife is continually moving into American suburbia. This can also cause predators to have more encounters with unassuming Americans (like cougars in Utah or coyotes in the Northeast). More robust funding is needed to address these issues.
The power of state solutions
There is an ongoing debate on how more funding should be attained. Generally speaking, federal, state, and private solutions are regularly discussed to work alone or in tandem to update the conservation model. Although there are compelling private and federal solutions in the works, we are nowhere near a strong consensus on enacting any of those changes.
State-level action provides two important contributions to conservation: opportunities to bring faster relief to the issue and valuable data for assessing the efficacy of funding models.
Federal legislation is difficult to pass, and a very small percentage of bills ever become laws. In contrast, state legislatures work at a much faster pace and pass more legislation than the federal government. States are also in a better position to create solutions particular to their wildlife needs. For example, Florida will have different needs and solutions to local wildlife conservation when compared to a state like Vermont.
It is easier for individuals and organized groups to enact meaningful changes at a state-level rather than a national one. Individuals who wish to take charge can pioneer new ideas or look into how funding has worked in other states.
Organized groups can enact meaningful change
Unique funding alternatives have already been implemented in select states because of the shortcomings of the current model. These examples provide valuable insights and data in the search for a better funding model. For example, Georgia implemented a conservation grant program (supported by 83 percent of voters), and Texas has experimented with a sporting goods tax.
Among these examples is Missouri, which provides insight for creating a popular solution.
Missouri is unique in that it has a dedicated conservation sales tax. For every eight dollars spent by consumers, one cent has gone towards conservation since 1976. This has provided hundreds of millions of dollars for state agencies to conserve wildlife. Missouri also highlights these efforts with impressive transparency through a monthly newsletter. This example shows how a modest tax and proactive transparency can produce the resources and power needed for extensive wildlife conservation.
With the success of this tax in the state, a group of concerned individuals used its structure to enact more conservation efforts. Missouri’s Parks, Soils and Water Sales Tax was implemented through grassroots campaigns convincing the public to address severe soil erosion in the state. Like the conservation tax, this tax is an additional one cent of every eight dollars spent. Keeping voters in mind, lawmakers decided that the bill would have to be renewed by a majority vote every ten years since its inception. Since 1988, two-thirds of voters have renewed the bill. In 2016, approximately 80 percent of voters chose to renew it.
There are key traits that led to the popularity and success of this legislation. The legislation is easy to understand, and it continues to be transparent by informing voters of funded activities via a public newsletter and state reports. The emphasis on public input and renewing the legislation allows everyone to gauge where constituents stand in regard to these issues. Groups and individuals can learn from this example when attempting to pioneer a new model.
The way Americans fund conservation is in need of an update.
The policymakers most likely to be able to improve conservation funding are in state legislatures. Missouri, Texas, and Georgia are strong examples of how states can take control of their own conservation funding. They aren’t perfect, but they provide a framework for success that voters and legislators in other states can follow.