Whether you’re an avid sportsman or purely a wildlife-watcher, it’s a fact that the animals, birds and fish you endeavor to see are “paid for” mostly by hunters. Those who engage in hunting, fishing and trapping are the major contributors to conservation funds in almost every state. Surprisingly, the monies animal-viewers and birdwatchers donate to conservation efforts rarely add up to even a third or a half of what hunters put into department of natural resources funds — even though watchers greatly outnumber them.
In my own state of Wisconsin, deer-hunting licenses and permits generated $22.7 million in revenue for the department of natural resources in 2010. And in most years, an excise tax on hunting equipment provides an additional $10 million to the state for wildlife management — in one case, supplying $400,000 to study and prepare for the likely arrival of a deadly bat disease. The problem is, however, that the number of hunters — along with anglers and trappers — is declining. And it promises to keep decreasing as the population ages.
So as the economy tightens, causing state and federal budgets for wildlife conservation to continue to be cut, and if younger people are not taking up hunting and fishing, where will future environmental monies come from?
As hunter numbers go downhill, there’s an uphill battle for funds
It’s true that in the past, unregulated hunting, fishing and trapping have been responsible for extirpating many species of wildlife. By the early 1900s, for example, American bison had been almost eliminated from the Great Plains forever due to unbridled harvesting. And a similar story can be told for many species: elk, sturgeon, turkeys and wolves, among them.
But early conservation leaders — such as George Bird Grinnell, Aldo Leopold, Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt — helped put in place the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, whose tenets include using wildlife in a sustainable manner only, managing wildlife based on scientific principles, and requiring that the fees collected from those who use wildlife be used only for managing that wildlife. These guidelines have not only helped bring back game species, such as ruffed grouse, but also non-game animals, such as bald eagles, from the brink of extinction.
But today, in Wisconsin, for instance, 68 percent of hunters have more than 30 years of hunting experience. The projection from this demographic is that there will be a decline of about 25 percent in those who hunt by 2030. This will translate into a loss of more than $4 million in revenue to the state’s fish and wildlife fund each year. That fund also pays for game management and conservation law enforcement, as well as ecosystem restoration and management.
Carrying an inordinate load
But while the number of hunters seems to be on a downward swing, the number of wildlife viewers appears to be healthy and growing. For example, in the largest wildlife area in my state, Crex Meadows, a full 70 to 80 percent of the 120,000 annual visitors come solely to view wildlife.
Yet, it is still the 20 to 30 percent of visitors to Crex who are hunters or trappers who provide nearly all of the funds for acquisition and management of Crex lands. Funding for the wildlife management program at Crex is received from the sale of hunting and trapping licenses, purchases of duck stamps, and a federal tax on guns and ammunition.
It seems clear that wildlife viewers are not encouraged — nor do they feel responsible on their own — to share in the load of conservation costs.
Some have suggested an excise tax on non-consuming equipment — such as binoculars, hiking boots or waterproof pants — to help fill in the budget gap that will result from a dwindling number of hunters; but so far, the idea hasn’t gained ground.
Like other work that needs to be done, conservation of our natural resources costs money. But the current model for conservation funding relies on hunters and fishermen. With their numbers declining, should we be fashioning a new model to fund our conservation efforts — one that includes wildlife-watchers?
Feature photo: Deer hunting generated $22.7 million in revenue for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 2010. Where will conservation funds come from when hunter numbers drastically decline? ©John T. Andrews
Be a wildlife-watcher from the comfort of home with nature videos on GaiamTV.com!