Hunters and Anglers Continue Our Role in Funding Fish and Wildlife Conservation

For generations, hunters and anglers have proudly been at the heart of funding for fish and wildlife conservation in the United States, in addition to playing a central role in fish and wildlife management through the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. We’ve embraced programs and funding that would conserve fish and wildlife for all the public to enjoy – achieved through license sales, programs like the federal Duck Stamp, and excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment.

This September is the 85th anniversary of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act after its sponsors, Sen. Key Pittman of Nevada and Rep. Absalom Willis Robertson of Virginia. Supported by sportsmen and women – both at the time of its passage in 1937 and since – this historic legislation directs federal excise taxes on firearms and ammunition to fund wildlife conservation. After witnessing a significant decline in many game species that are common today including white-tailed deer, elk, turkeys and waterfowl – hunters helped enact taxes that would lead to their restoration.

Photo Credit: Eric Sharpe

The Dingell-Johnson Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act (named after Rep. John Dingell of Michigan and Sen. Edwin Johnson of Colorado) followed in 1950. The Dingell-Johnson Act directs taxes on boat fuel and fishing equipment to conservation, adding contributions from anglers.

Together these two laws fund the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, which is dispersed to support state and local wildlife and habitat conservation as well as outdoor recreational opportunities such as fishing, hunting, shooting and boating.

Since they were passed into law, Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson have provided state fish and wildlife agencies with more than $25.5 billion, which has been matched by the recipient state agencies with approximately an additional $8.5 billion, primarily through hunting and fishing license revenues (100 percent of which goes to conservation). More than $1.5 billion was disbursed by the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program in the 2022 fiscal year alone. Hunters and anglers stand out as the only user-group that directly contributes to public lands and waters in such a way.

Sportsmen and women had the foresight to support the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, which helped conserve many popular game species at a critical time. Now, at a similar moment in history, state fish and wildlife management agencies have identified more than 12,000 Species of Greatest Conservation Need. State Wildlife Action Plans, created to address those at-risk species, have been chronically underfunded for decades, and, as a result, many species continue to decline. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, led by Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), would provide nearly $1.4 billion in annual funding for state and tribal fish and wildlife agencies to implement those plans.

Photo Credit: Steve Barraclough

Along with hunters and anglers, 70 percent of Americans, a significant majority, support passing the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, or RAWA, into law. RAWA would allow for the proper implementation of the necessary tools to recover and conserve wildlife. By broadening the resources for states, this would be critical addition to the funding provided by the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program.

Unfortunately, at the same time sportsmen and women are advocating to improve funding for fish and wildlife conservation, we must confront and oppose threats to existing successful programs. Legislation introduced in June, the RETURN our Constitutional Rights Act led by Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-GA), would divorce the role of hunters in funding the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program by effectively repealing Pittman-Robertson and eliminating the excise taxes on firearms and ammunition, the tax so many of us proudly support. In doing so the RETURN Act undermines the most successful wildlife conservation program in United States history.

Photo Credit: Ryan Los

At one point the RETURN Act had 58 cosponsors; however, support for the legislation is diminishing. At the time of this article’s publication and following criticism from their constituents, seven cosponsors have removed their names from the bill. Though the hunting community was not consulted in the drafting of this legislation, there has been a wave of grassroots opposition and calls from BHA and our partners for the bill to be disavowed. A recent opinion column in the New York Times further muddied the waters, calling for a divorce between hunters and wildlife conservation for opposing reasons, among them a misguided disapproval of the relationship between hunters and the conservation of wildlife.

More than ever, as hunters and anglers we must stand proud in our commitment to funding wildlife conservation – and we must rise to defend that heritage. Our community’s contributions over the decades through excise taxes and license sales have played a key role in maintaining healthy wildlife and habitat. Just as important, we must advocate for broadening and expanding the funding sources that will be necessary to continue wildlife conservation for future generations.

Take action to urge your senator to support a vote on RAWA.

Voice your opposition to the RETURN Act and reaffirm your support for the role of hunters in funding wildlife conservation. 

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About Kaden McArthur

A western hunter and angler, my passion for wild places and wildlife brought me to Washington, DC to work on conservation policy.

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