A new survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows that today, only about 5 percent of Americans, 16 years old and older, actually hunt. That’s half of what it was 50 years ago and the decline is expected to accelerate over the next decade.
Meanwhile other wildlife-centered activities, like bird watching, hiking and photography, are rapidly growing, as American society and attitudes towards wildlife change.
The shift is being welcomed by some who morally oppose the sport, but it’s also leading to a crisis.
State wildlife agencies and the country’s wildlife conservation system are heavily dependent on sportsmen for funding. Money generated from license fees and excise taxes on guns, ammunition and angling equipment provide about 60 percent of the funding for state wildlife agencies, which manage most of the wildlife in the U.S.
This user-play, user-pay funding system for wildlife conservation has been lauded and emulated around the world. It has been incredibly successful at restoring the populations of North American game animals, some of which were once hunted nearly to extinction.
There’s a growing sense of urgency in the wildlife conservation community to broaden that funding base. Congress is looking at tapping oil and gas revenues. Some states are adding general sales taxes, while others are looking for ways to tweak the user-play, user-pay model to better represent how today’s society interacts with wildlife, monetizing activities like wildlife-viewing.
Is the greater public willing to pay more to protect wildlife?
“Conservationists need to be looking at what is the next step to keep our conservation programs and places strong and healthy,” says Mary Jean Huston, director of The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin. “Things need to evolve.”
A panel on sustaining America’s fish and wildlife resources recently warned: “Without a change in the way we finance fish and wildlife conservation, we can expect the list of federally threatened and endangered species to grow from nearly 1,600 species today to perhaps thousands more in the future.”
A demographic wall
In 1992, Tom Heberlein, a rural sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, made a bold prediction: If sociological trends, like increasing urbanization, smaller family sizes and growing anti-hunting sentiment continued, the sport of hunting – as Wisconsinites knew it – could be extinct by the year 2050.
Increased urbanization, restricted access to huntable areas, lack of free time, and the rise of Netflix, video games and all-consuming youth sports are all dropping hunter numbers, but the most-pressing challenge is one that others can’t do anything about.
Nearly a third of all hunters in the U.S. are baby boomers. They hunted like no other generation since. But the oldest Boomers are already aging out of the sport and the youngest, at 54, are only about a decade away from joining them.
What that means is the way that conservation was done in the past is not going to be sufficient in the future.
Linking hunting to conservation
In the late 1800s, American wildlife was in a bad place. Market hunting, trapping, invasive species and American’s rapid expansion westward had pushed many wildlife species to the brink.
All of this over-hunting got the attention of a couple of other hunters – one who would go on to found the Audubon Society, another who would become the 26th and youngest president of the United States.
George Bird Grinnell and Theodore Roosevelt, along with others like John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, helped establish the American conservation movement around the idea that wildlife and other natural resources, belong to all Americans – current and future. As such, they needed to be preserved or conserved.
Roosevelt proposed the idea of “conservation through wise use,” and started pushing his fellow hunters to help pay for that conservation.
The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, or the Pittman-Robertson Act, as it’s more commonly known, requires that states use their revenues from hunting license fees for wildlife management. It also took an existing 11 percent excise tax on guns and ammunition and directed that money to state wildlife agencies for wildlife restoration and protection. A similar act was later passed to tax angling equipment.
More than $19 billion has since been apportioned to state wildlife agencies from funds generated by those taxes.
With gun sales surging in recent years, that pool of money has actually grown. People in the hunting world joke that former president Barack Obama was the greatest conservationist since Roosevelt, because of the record gun sales during his presidency.
But there’s a catch
To access those federally apportioned funds, states have to pony up some of their own matching money – 25 percent or more of the total they’re looking to get back. No match, no money.
Many states have increased license fees for out-of-state hunters to compensate for the decrease in license sales, but there’s only so far you can raise fees before you start pricing people out.
The National Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit conservation organization, says that current funding levels for national wildlife conservation are “less than 5 percent of what is necessary.”
The question is: Are they willing to pay for them?
Nationally, 74 percent of Americans believe the country should “do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” according to the Pew Research Center. But in most cases outside of hunting and fishing, that’s not being translated into dollars.
Philanthropy and nonprofits have certainly stepped up to try and fill the void, bringing in money for habitat purchases and management. A few states have passed sales taxes to help fund conservation. Others have tapped lottery ticket sales or started selling specialty license plates.
Even Congress is looking for a solution. Legislation, introduced late last year, would redirect revenues from energy and mineral development on federal lands to state wildlife programs. The proposal has bipartisan support, but similar efforts to secure wider funding have failed in the past.
Who goes and sits in the woods all day except hunters. If hunting didn’t exist, who’d know that the squirrel population is down, that a windstorm knocked all these trees down – who’d know all of that stuff? Because hunters are the ones out there seeing all of it.
The latest numbers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that 86 million Americans participated in wildlife watching in 2016. That was a 20 percent increase from just five years previous. The number of people enjoying outdoor recreation is increasing as well.
The passage of the Lacey Act, the nation’s first – and perhaps most powerful – wildlife protection law is a good example. It prohibits the trade of wildlife, fish and plants that have been taken illegally.
It’s difficult to license birdwatchers or hikers and so forth in the same way that hunting and fishing can be regulated.
So the question is would bird watchers and hikers be willing to pay?