As our state loses numbers of hunters, it also loses the license revenue that funds wildlife management. This is the topic the Masked Biologist tackles in this week’s Wildlife Matters.
When I took firearms safety 35 years ago, we were taught a statistic that was still accurate when I became a hunter education instructor twenty years ago. About 10-12% of Americans were hunters, and about the same number, 10-12%, were anti-hunters. The remaining 75-80% of Americans were in the middle, not really hunters but not necessarily opposed to hunting. Today, almost two decades into the 21st century, that is no longer the case. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. It is a comprehensive report, almost 150 pages of facts, figures, and tables of data about natural resource use by consumptive and non-consumptive users. Within the pages of that report is revealed that today, only about 5% of Americans ages 16 and up actually hunt. A 50% decline in hunter numbers in the last couple of decades, and the numbers are predicted to drop even faster in the next ten years.
Conversely, the numbers of people participating in non-consumptive recreation, like wildlife/nature photography, hiking, or bird-watching have escalated significantly. From 2010 to 2016, there was 20% jump in participants, up to 86 million wildlife-watching Americans.
I saw a Facebook post by a non-consumptive bird watching group that touted their increasing ranks with pride. As well they should; it is terrific that 86 million Americans are out there enjoying wildlife held in trust for them. However, how much do those birdwatchers pay for wildlife conservation? Frankly, the numbers are probably very low. It’s possible that their purchase of binoculars a couple of years ago had a 10% excise tax that went into the Pittman Robertson or PR fund for wildlife conservation. However, unless these birdwatchers are also hunters, they are not contributing much else to fund wildlife management. Hunters on the other hand pay in multiple ways. First, they buy hunting licenses that directly fund natural resource management, including game wardens, customer service staff, vehicle purchases, and more. They also buy habitat stamps that directly fund wildlife projects to benefit pheasants, turkeys, and waterfowl. They then buy ammunition and hunting supplies, which contribute a taxable portion to the federal PR fund. On top of that, they might belong to a sportsman’s group like National Wild Turkey Federation, Ruffed Grouse Society, Ducks Unlimited, or Whitetails Unlimited, all of which make funds available for wildlife managers to do research and habitat improvement.
As we lose hunters to death, retirement, or non-consumptive activities, someone else will need to step up and fund conservation. There are not stable reliable funding sources out there to keep managing our resources at the current level. Back in 2015, Wisconsin’s chapter of the Nature Conservancy commissioned a poll about this very topic, and nearly 90% of participants agreed that funding should be devoted to protecting land, water and wildlife even when funds are scarce and the state budget is tight.
Other states have already arrived at this conclusion, that there needs to be more funding made available from the public at large to keep conservation work going. Missouri actually wrote a dedicated sales tax into their constitution. It is a small tax, one eighth of one percent, but spread across every purchase in the state, it definitely adds up. Our neighbor to the west, Minnesota, passed a constitutional amendment in 2008 that dedicated a portion of collected sales tax for conservation, clean water, outdoor recreation and cultural heritage. This Legacy Fund added three-eighths of one percent sales tax to all taxable purchases for these dedicated expenditures through 2034.
Here in Wisconsin we need to be more forward thinking if we are to continue managing public land, improving wildlife habitat, and caring for both game and nongame wildlife species for all residents as we have in years past. Dedicated funding is the obvious answer, but there is no sign of additional sales taxes on the horizon here in Wisconsin.
Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.