Hunters Shouldering Wildlife Conservation
Hunters have long touted themselves as America’s greatest conservationists. The credit is well deserved too, hunters are one of the only wildlife user groups to lobby for and pass a self-imposed federal tax to fund the conservation of wildlife and wildlife habitat. The Pittman-Roberston Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 was bipartisan legislation meant to restore and conserve our hunting and wildlife legacy. The Act put an excise tax on hunting equipment that’s collect by the federal government and is disbursed to state wildlife agencies each year. This legislation is one of the single most important wildlife conservation funding mechanisms we have today, generating funds in the billions of dollars since its inception. On top of that there’s the sale of hunting licenses and tags, other government programs like the Duck Stamp program where waterfowl hunters purchase a conservation stamp each year to hunt waterfowl, and hunter dollars that come through non-profit groups like Pheasants Forever or the Mule Deer Foundation. So yea, hunters have put their money where their mouth is and we should be damn proud of it.
The Numbers Crisis
A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) five-year study (2011 to 2016) showed that 40 percent of Americans enjoy wildlife related activities like wildlife watching, wildlife photography or hunting and fishing. Of those there was one user group on the decline, hunters. According to the study, hunting participation declined by 2 million participants from 2011 to 2016 to 11.5 million. Total hunting expenditures declined 29 percent from $36.3 billion to $25.6 billion. This is concerning for a lot of reasons, but as far as wildlife conservation and management goes this is extremely alarming because hunters are funding a large chunk of how we manage, protect, conserve, and restore wildlife and habitat under the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. As hunters decline and hunting expenditures decline so does our ability to manage, conserve, and restore wildlife and habitat under the current model. Hunter participation across the country has been declining for decades and continues to decline at a more rapid rate. What happens in 5 more years when this study shows another 30% decline, then 10, 15, and 20 years after that. At what point does this model for hunters funding North America’s wildlife conservation collapse on itself and become financially unsustainable? Is it during our generation, our kids generation or our grand-kids generation? The numbers don’t lie, it may be inevitable if there aren’t drastic changes.
At what point does this model for hunters funding North America’s wildlife conservation collapse on itself and become financially unsustainable? Is it during our generation, our kids generation or our grand-kids generation? The numbers don’t lie, it may be inevitable if there aren’t drastic changes.
Furthermore over 50% of hunters are nearly 50 years old. Is the hunter funded wildlife conservation legacy going to die with them? The time for change is here and the model for how we fund wildlife conservation must evolve. If it doesn’t wildlife will suffer and American’s who love wildlife will suffer. Dan Ashe, former director of USFWS has said “We are at a make-or-break juncture for wildlife conservation.”
Playing Nice with Non-hunting Community
This same USFWS study found that the biggest increases in wildlife participation involved wildlife watching and photography. These activities surged 20 percent to 86 million participants. Money spent on these activities also rose sharply from $59.1 billion to $75.9 billion. So it isn’t that society doesn’t enjoy wildlife and the outdoors, it’s that society may be moving towards more non-consumptive uses like wildlife watching and photography. The time is here to share the burden of wildlife conservation funding with other wildlife and outdoor users. This will mean working closely with people who may not share some of the same thoughts and ideology as hunters do. Hunters and the hunting community can be stubborn though and find it hard to adapt, difficult to work with others who are non-hunters. Hunters often act as if it’s “us against the them” and it’s becoming more and more apparent that there are more of them than us, just look at the numbers and trends stated earlier. We think that the rest of the world just doesn’t get why we hunt and why we love wildlife.
Hunters often act as if it’s “us against the them” and it’s becoming more and more apparent that there are more of them than us…
To play the devils advocate, maybe it’s hunters that don’t get it. Maybe we need to change, evolve and adapt and be more accepting and willing to work across societal boundaries and take this opportunity at a critical conservation crossroads leading conservation in this new and changing 21st century America.
Share the Financial Burden
The vast majority of Americans enjoy seeing wildlife and enjoy the outdoors. The burden of managing and conserving wildlife and habitat is becoming more expensive and a greater burden in this world where human ecology is impacting the natural ecology at an exponential rate. Somehow we need to better distribute that financial burden across the different groups of people using wildlife and wild places as a form of recreation. Having the hunting community continue to carry that conservation mantel is unsustainable. With so many Americans enjoying the outdoors in different ways we need to hold them financially accountable for perpetuating wildlife conservation. Hunters need to work with those other non-hunters and focus what we have in common rather than what may divide us. We need to team up with other public land users – the wildlife watchers, the mountain bikers, the photographers, the camping community, boaters, backpackers and whom ever else might have some skin in the game. Can you imagine the hunting community united with some of these other outdoor users. Imagine the collective voice conservation advocacy would have, and imagine a new conservation funding model where all Americans who use wildlife and wildlife habitat share the financial burden of wildlife management. Collectively we might solve what seems inevitable, the collapse of wildlife conservation funding as we know it. Hunters have been shouldering the bulk of wildlife conservation in the 20th century and it’s time we work with others who enjoy wildlife and wild places to develop a new model for funding 21st century wildlife conservation, and that model will likely need to have more contributions from everyone.
Reaching out to Future America
We don’t need to give up on hunter recruitment either. We are continually recruiting new hunters and bringing them into the fold, it’s not all doom and gloom, it’s just that we’re losing more than we’re gaining. There will always be hunting if we continue to share and represent its importance in society and to wildlife management. Youth programs around the country are seeing success. We’re even seeing adult onset hunting more today with those concerned about healthy eating, factory farming, knowing where their food comes from and eating healthy clean organic meats. More women are joining the hunting community than in the past too. Our recruiting strategies need to be creative and adapt to the new 21st century America. Reach out to the women, the food conscience, minority groups, adventure seeking recreation groups like backpackers, those who’s second language is English, and other non-traditional segments of the population. We might not turn them all into hunters but if they have an understanding because of exposure to hunters and hunting as conservation they may be our conservation allies in the future.
Also reaching out to urban and suburban areas is critical. Out west we live in a bubble where we have relatively close access to public lands that we can hunt, fish and otherwise recreate outdoors – this bubble isn’t mirrored by the rest of the country. Urbanization is accelerating at lightning speeds. 8 out of 10 people in America live in a urban or suburban setting. If we want wildlife conservation to continue having relevancy in the future we need to think about who we recruit as our future wildlife conservationists and how we retain them. Nature is always evolving and so should we as hunter conservationists if we want to continue to have the greatest wildlife on the face of the earth and the funds to mange the habitat.
“There’s a new generation of conservationist out there. They’re in cities; they’re using iPhones and Androids; they don’t hunt or fish; they’ve never spent a night outdoors; their skin is red or black or brown; English may be their second language. We have to find them. We have to inspire and recruit and retain them. They will be the best-and-brightest. They will make conservation relevant.”
—Dan Ashe, former director of the USFWS
Scary but Necessary
The thought of working with non-hunters and segments of the population that may not think like us is scary. If we do share the the funding of wildlife management and conservation this might mean those other wildlife user groups have a bigger piece of the pie when it comes to their opinion with management. Is that a scary thought, maybe, but an even scarier thought is conservation becoming irrelevant and unfunded to the point of wildlife suffering and habitat diminishing.