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Who Pays for Wildlife Conservation?

The indisputable truth is that hunters and shooters fuel the bulk of habitat acquisition and wildlife management across the United States.

Who Pays for Wildlife Conservation?

The voluntary taxes and fees paid by hunters and shooters fuel the bulk of habitat acquisition and wildlife management. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

Love wildlife? Buy a gun. Then buy some ammo.

Did you notice I didn’t ask you who funds “wild game,” but who funds “wildlife?” Because hunters pay for conservation and management of three-toed salamanders and “watchable wildlife” as well as long-spurred ring-necked roosters and other game birds. And the money pool is drying up, with a real risk of locked gates and shrinking game populations.

Non-hunters cringe when they hear this, but the incontrovertible truth is our voluntary taxes and fees fuel the bulk of habitat acquisition and wildlife management.

Dry Valley BLM Land
Taxes and fees paid by hunters and shooters helps pay for protecting wildlife habitat and provide public access to enjoy the resources. (Photo By: Micheal Lee/Shutterstock.com)

Tax Us, Please

Much of that money comes from one farsighted and fascinating piece of legislation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Wildlife Restoration Act, also known as the Pittman–Robertson Act of 1937 (P-R Fund), named after sponsors Key Pittman in the Senate and Absalom Willis Robertson in the House. Through it, hunters and shooters contribute between $177 million and $324 million per year to wildlife conservation and management. Over $12 billion has been collected since 1939 for wildlife conservation. If only your 401K could do as well—that money multiplies itself four-fold when states get their hands on it.

A recent update addresses a problem unforeseen in the original: a shrinking base of hunters, allowing some funds to be used for recruitment. Lucky for quail, grouse, and us, there are several other pots of gold at the end of the conservation rainbow as well.

Out of Whack

It’s ironic: most wildlife isn’t hunted, but management is primarily the burden of the four percent of America that goes afield with gun or bow or shoots targets at the range. Bird watchers, hikers, photographers, and mountain bikers contribute a few income or sales tax pennies, but nothing directly to the agencies charged with managing habitat and conservation. 

When a Pittman-Robertson Act-like tax on backpacks, hiking boots and other outdoor gear was proposed in the 1980s it went down in flames, spiked by equipment makers who worried it would cost them sales. Yet those same groups still demand a seat at the regulatory table while condemning those who paid the price of admission: us.

Hunting’s contribution to wildlife management is constantly under attack by animal rights and so-called conservation groups. Their strident voices often prevail at wildlife commission meetings and on the ballot, akin to jumping the subway turnstile then whining when the train runs late.

But our community is fighting back.

“If hunters are paying for the system, why shouldn’t they benefit?” said Whit Fosburgh, President of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We’re losing places to hunt. Hunters are paying into state conservation, so they should be taken care of.”  

Rooster Ring-Necked Pheasant
Bird hunters can both conserve and consume their favorite natural resource by purchasing firearms and ammunition. (Photo By: Piotr Krzeslak/Shutterstock.com)

A Legacy of Voluntary Funding

Another pot of gold was created in the depth of the Depression in 1934. Hunters asked Congress to levy a tax on them to protect critical habitat. “Duck stamp” funds are now used to purchase and manage all types of federal wildlife refuges from the massive Charles M. Russell refuge in Montana, to the 0.57-acre Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge in central Minnesota. 


Add to these the $400 million per year in dues, banquet donations, and raffle tickets benefitting groups from Pheasants Forever to the American Woodcock Society and it totals over $1.8 billion per year, according to the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies. That’s before the inestimable number of volunteer hours and “boots on the ground” hunters put in.

clay shooting range
It's not limited to hunters. Sport shooters also contribute to paying for wildlife conservation. (Photo By: Scott Linden)

How Does Pittman-Robertson Funding Work? 

When a firearm or box of ammo, bow or arrow, is sold by the manufacturer to the retailer or distributor, an excise tax of 11 percent is levied on long guns and ammo, bows, and arrows. There is a 10 percent tax on handguns. Manufacturers send that money to the federal government, while the seller bakes the tax into the price you pay at the sporting goods store. 

The Feds distribute those millions based on the land area of the state and territories (50 percent) and the number of paid hunting license holders (50 percent). None receives more than five percent of the total; each is guaranteed at least one-half of one percent.

public land hunting sign
Those who enjoy the public trust resources are the same individuals funding their protection and preservation.

A Temporary Reprieve

Luckily, gun sales have been off the hook the last few years, offsetting a free-fall in hunting participation. Only about 4 percent of Americans hunt—half of what it was 50 years ago—and the decline is expected to accelerate.

Yet cries for more money are longer and louder. Massive jumps in “non-consumptive” recreation, mandated endangered species management, catastrophic wildfires, diseases such as chronic wasting disease, and mitigating problems caused by resource extraction have a stranglehold on agency budgets already spread thin.

The Other Side’s Arguments

Yes, some funding broadly defined as “for wildlife” comes from the recent Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (decommissioning some forest roads and improving others for better access, wildlife crossings on some highways). The recently-renewed North American Wetlands Conservation Act contributes some funds (about $45 million in recent years), but both are drops in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions invested by hunters.

If you venture deep into the political weeds, groups with ulterior motives (the Mountain Lion Society, for example) try to dismiss the hunters-as-conservationists argument. But their data and suppositions simply don’t bear up under scrutiny. Many assign a pie-in-the-sky “value” to all federal real estate, claiming that since citizens own those lands, their dollar value should be considered wildlife funding. Unfortunately, you can’t pay staff salaries with real estate.


Fight Back 

We can re-occupy the high ground by joining groups such as the Ruffed Grouse Society and Pheasants Forever, who get our point across in the halls of government. We can recruit new hunters. We can wear blaze orange and attend a wildlife commission meeting, give testimony.

Benjamin Franklin said, “If we don’t hang together, we’ll assuredly hang separately,” and in the case of wildlife conservation, he is on target. Knowing where the dollars come from keeps us off that first step to the gallows. Let’s not climb higher, where dwindling habitat and game populations may as well be the hangman’s noose slipping over our heads.

Hunter Education and firearms training
Many hunter education programs are funded by taxes and fees paid into the Pittman-Roberston pool. (Photo By: Scott Linden)
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