With participation in hunting declining, an important source of conservation funding is also at risk—unless we can invest more in recruiting the next generation of sportsmen and women
Did you know that every year, hunters contribute more than $700 million to state wildlife conservation efforts? That’s right—for more than 80 years, sportsmen and women have been overwhelmingly responsible for the health of fish and wildlife populations in America.
At the start of the 20th century, several wildlife species were imperiled, with few safeguards in place for dwindling populations. Recognizing that inaction may result in not only the mass extinction of America’s wildlife but also our pursuit of wildlife, hunters decided to take matters into our own hands.
In 1937, with support from the nation’s earliest sportsmen’s organizations, Congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Act, which created the Wildlife Restoration program. Since then, more than $10 billion in excise taxes on shooting and archery equipment have been distributed to state wildlife agencies for wildlife conservation projects, hunter education courses, and public access improvements. In most states, Pittman-Robertson is the only source of funding for fish and game agencies.
But recent data paints a grim picture for the future of hunting and wildlife conservation.
The most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service five-year study on fishing and hunting participation and spending shows troubling long-term trends that should give us all pause.
Between 2011 and 2016, the number of hunters declined by 16 percent—from 13.7 million to 11.5 million people. Additionally, the hunting population aged slightly, while the average number of days hunters spent afield decreased from 21 to 16. And, perhaps most distressing for hunters relying on healthy wildlife populations, spending on hunting equipment dropped 8.6 percent, from $14 billion to $12.8 billion.
Fishing is the most popular outdoor recreation activity in 47 congressional districts, according to new data from the Outdoor Industry Association. Hunting doesn’t rank in the top three for a single district.
Clearly, maintenance of the status quo should be off the table.
Taking Aim at the Issue
Fortunately, our elected officials are making efforts to remedy this situation. On May 8, the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved a bill introduced by Rep. Austin Scott to modernize the Pittman-Robertson Act by allowing states to spend some of these funds on direct efforts to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters. A companion bill from Sen. Jim Risch has strong bipartisan support and co-sponsorship.
If passed into law, this could boost R3 efforts through mentoring and outreach via television or even social media—you know, where the younger generations spend their time.
“With this legislation, the current generation of sportsmen and women has a chance to leave a lasting legacy on the footprint of conservation—much like hunters did in 1937, when Pittman-Robertson was passed,” says Cyrus Baird, programs director for the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports. “By allowing state fish and wildlife agencies more flexibility to use P-R funds to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters, we are ensuring the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation will remain effective for generations to come.”
A Tackle Box for Information
Champions of the “P-R Mod” effort are fairly sure that legislative changes will be worth it, because the model has already been successful on the fishing side. The Dingell-Johnson Act created the program that distributes excise taxes on boating and fishing equipment to the states for fish and habitat conservation, but with one key difference: Every year, about $12 million in Sport Fish Restoration funds go towards national angler R3 efforts.
This has led to programs like Take Me Fishing, the incredibly helpful initiative that provides resources for beginning anglers looking to purchase a license, tie a lure, identify a walleye, or read up on their state boating laws. Take Me Fishing has also partnered with state fish and wildlife agencies to reach out to Americans who are underserved and underrepresented in the fishing industry.
This is all made possible by Sport Fish Restoration funds and has been critical in growing fishing participation numbers and the economic impact of anglers across the country. Between 2011 and 2016, the angling population grew by 2.7 million people, while spending on fishing equipment increased by more than 36 percent.
The Bottom Line
As hunters, a portion of our purchases goes back to all wildlife—not just the species that hunters care about. And we have shown time and again that we are willing to pay even more to see fish and wildlife habitat thrive. But it won’t be enough unless we swell our ranks at the same time.
Given the foundational role hunters play in wildlife conservation, we should be bold in our pursuit of efforts to recruit, retain, and reengage America’s hunters for the next generation. Bringing Pittman-Robertson up to date is one pragmatic way to do that.
Top photo courtesy of Tim Donovan.
Second and third photos courtesy of Northwoods Collective.