Sportsmen are the geese who continue to lay the golden eggs for wildlife
By JIM MATTHEWS
September 22 was National Hunting and Fishing Day.
I can hear the large, collective yawn that news elicits from most of the public. Yet, it should be a day celebrated by all wildlife enthusiasts. Hunters and fishermen continue to fund the bulk of the fish and wildlife conservation and restoration work done in the nation today. We, quite frankly, are indeed the geese that continue to lay those golden eggs for wildlife.
Through hunting and fishing licenses, tag, and stamp fees; through self-imposed excise taxes on guns, ammunition, and fishing tackle; through millions of volunteer hours doing habitat work across the nation, it is the sporting community that keeps our wildlife heritage alive.
But the flock of geese is dwindling at such a rate that the funding for state game agencies is plummeting, and the work done by these agencies declines as more responsibilities and less funding go into their accounts. Anyone who has ever heard me speak publically has heard this often repeated factoid: The number of annual hunting licenses has gone from a high of 850,000 in the early 1970s to a low of 250,000 in recent years. Fishing license numbers have gone from a high of over two million to a low of just under a million over the same span of years. This has happened when the state’s population has increased from 20 million to 40 million. Amazingly, the amount of money contributed to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife by hunters and anglers has remained constant or actually increased slightly, thanks to hefty increases in license, tag, permit, and application fees. However, state and agency projections are showing that goose is cooked, and the era of golden eggs is going to end – if something isn’t done to retain and increase the ranks of outdoorsmen.
If California had just been able to maintain the same percentage of hunters and anglers in the population as the 1960s and 70s, the agencies would have more than four times the budget than they have today. It would have the largest share of federal excise taxes sportsmen pay. It would be awash in money.
Some within the state and federal bureaucracies are finally starting to wake up and beginning to look at how to turn the downward trend in hunting and fishing participation around. In a pair of press releases in the past week, the rumblings or awareness and action are finally showing.
In a California DFW release on Hunting and Fishing Day, Clark Blanchard wrote, “Unfortunately, participation in hunting and fishing has been steadily declining in California and nationally since the 1980s. The decline in these activities poses an ever-increasing threat to conservation of our natural resources.
“Fish and Wildlife is ramping up statewide efforts to improve recruitment, retention, and reactivation of hunters and anglers to curb this threat. Currently the project is in the planning stage with implementation planned for early next year.”
An earlier press release from the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus touted the passage of a bill “modernizing” the Pittman-Robertson Fund (the excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, and hunting gear earmarked solely for wildlife). The big change is allowing the states to use some of the Pittman-Robertson money to try and recruit more hunters and recreational shooters to help boost funding for this account.
"With a national decline in outdoor recreational activities, Pittman-Robertson funds are shrinking and our state and local habitats are suffering, which is why I have been fighting to give states more flexibility in how they use their PR funds and hopefully attract more Americans to the outdoors in the process," said Congressman Austin Scott of Georgia, who co-authored the legislation.
The elephant in the room that no one is talking about it simply this: Can the agencies increase participation in hunting, fishing, and recreational shooting even if they have money to throw at trying to reverse the declines. Would they even know what to do?
Part of the problem is simply that many (most?) within the ranks of the state and federal wildlife agencies no longer hunt or fish? How can they know or understand what has caused people to leave the sport or never try it? If the state simply mandated that it was a requisite that all employees of the DFW take the necessary hunter safety class and buy both hunting and fishing licenses as a requisite for their jobs, that would at least help the staff understand the costs and issues involved. They should all have to apply for deer tags so they understand the nightmare it has become. They should all have to try to understand the quagmire of fishing regulations and explain them in an extensive exam. Then they might begin to understand some of the problems.
I’m sure all of the DFW focus groups and research point to a few simple things that have slowly but surely driven the declines: Increasing costs, access (to everything from knowledge to places to participate), and – the biggest one of all – interest.
It will be amusing to see what the DFW trots out this coming year as a means of addressing the declines in hunters and anglers, and how serious the staff is about this effort. For many, they see how hunters and anglers are indeed the goose that laid the golden egg (and fund their jobs), but most of them are so short-sighted they are willing to sacrifice that bird and try to find another source of golden eggs. They will say, “We tried,” and then happily write off hunting and eventually fishing.
What is not discussed is what will be lost beyond the golden eggs if hunting and angling disappear. Sportsmen are among the last members of the public who care passionately about public lands, wildlife, and healthy, natural environments as something to be enjoyed by everyone while protecting our resources. Without sportsmen’s stewardship and interest, there is no reason for public lands and sound natural environments. Fish and wildlife advocacy will suffer and public access could die. Can we salvage those things? Can we salvage hunting and fishing?
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.