Wildlife Conservation in the Crosshairs
By: Steve Kline, President
In June, 51 members of Congress introduced H.R. 8167, the RETURN Act, a bill that would eviscerate wildlife conservation and end, after 85 years, one of the most successful federal programs ever devised.
In 1937, with the Dust Bowl ravaging the Great Plains and a Great Depression gripping the nation, things in the United States were existentially bleak. The fingerprints of catastrophe left practically nothing untouched, as America’s world-renowned wildlife resources, which had been thought by some to be inexhaustible, were in freefall. Ducks and geese, suffering from the same persistent drought that was systematically dismantling the prairies, were plummeting. Deer, elk, black bear, and wild turkey populations were in crisis, like so much of the rest of our country at the time.
Out of the ashes of the Great Depression, a great conservation success story arose, with the passage of the visionary Pittman-Robertson Act, which created an 11% excise tax on firearms and ammunition, money that would be dispersed to state wildlife agencies for wildlife conservation and habitat restoration. The thinking went, since hunters were consumptive users of wildlife resources, they ought to be first in line to fund the conservation of those resources. Since then, America’s hunters and recreational shooters have contributed $15 billion to wildlife conservation in what can rightly be called one of the most successful funding arrangements in the history of the federal government.
With those dedicated funds, state wildlife agencies have led the way toward restoring nearly every game species to record populations. Turkeys, once nearly extirpated from the state of Maryland, now gobble every spring across the entire Eastern Shore. White-tailed deer are now so numerous it has become difficult to imagine they were once a rarity on the landscape. And while they don’t always cooperate here in the Atlantic flyway, duck and goose populations are faring well.
Pittman-Robertson dollars, along with excise taxes on other hunting and fishing equipment, comprise the Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration Program. This dedicated funding is the underpinning of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a globally unique concept that sees wildlife managed as a public resource using funds from hunters and anglers. And the conservation efforts funded with Pittman-Robertson dollars benefit all forms of wildlife, not just the game species sought after by hunters: habitat restoration that targets quail or ducks, improves conditions for songbirds, marsh birds, pollinators, and countless other critters.
But now that legacy, and the very future of wildlife conservation, has been put at grave risk. The RETURN Act would completely eliminate the wildlife conservation excise tax on ammunition and firearms. This is untenable. All of us who care about healthy populations of wildlife, whether we call ourselves bird hunters or bird watchers, should stand ready to make clear our opposition to this idea and ideas like it. At a time when habitat fragmentation and climate change place immense pressure on wildlife, we need Pittman-Robertson now more than ever.