by C.B. Bylander
One of the nation's best hunting stories has nothing to do with the taking of an animal. Instead, it's the saga of a society that came together to support nature by forming a powerful bond among state and federal wildlife agencies, gun and ammunition makers, and hunters.
In the 1930s, as the Great Depression was strangling the American spirit, it was choking life from the nation's wildlife too. Wetlands had turned bone-dry following years of drought, causing ducks to disappear. Drought caused croplands—especially those in America's midsection—to turn to dust. These fallow fields—once vast, ancient prairies—no longer held prairie chickens, quail, and other species. Forests, or what was left of them, were also under pressure. They had been sapped by decades of unsustainable logging that opened the land, fed the mills, and served lumber to a hungry and growing nation. Lack of effective hunting regulations added to the woe, furthering declines in migratory bird and big game populations.
Against this bleak backdrop, the federal government shortened the duck season. Eleven states closed deer seasons, and three states offered only localized seasons in those areas where deer remained.
Yet the drought of the 1930s inspired a wave of new thinking. Aldo Leopold's conservation philosophy took root. The science of wildlife management blossomed. Sustainable management began to branch in many directions. And hunters began to form local and international organizations to conserve wildlife. Ducks Unlimited, for example, was born in 1937 by the winds that created the Dust Bowl.
That same year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Wildlife Restoration Act, also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937. Named after congressional sponsors Key Pittman in the Senate and Absalom Willis Robertson in the House, the act created a federal tax on firearms and ammunition sales. The act's aim was to increase conservation by delivering money generated by this federal tax back to states to manage wildlife and protect habitat. It was New Deal thinking for a longstanding problem.
Inspired Act. "All nations face the dilemma of balancing the needs of wildlife with the needs of people," said Ed Boggess, director of the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Department of Natural Resources. "Roosevelt's pen stroke of 1937 became a keystone in advancing the North American model of wildlife conservation by providing a financial mechanism for restoring and enhancing wildlife populations for the benefit of all the nation's citizens."
Boggess said it was particularly inspired legislation because tax revenue from equipment sales to hunters and shooters had to be used to benefit hunters and shooters. "What is so remarkable is that this occurred during one of the darkest economic times in our nation's history," he said. "Those dedicated to developing a conservation system for managing wildlife really understood that, as Teddy Roosevelt had stated three decades earlier, conservation of natural resources was the nation's fundamental issue."
Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began distributing Pittman-Robertson revenue in 1939, state wildlife agencies have received more than $6 billion. Allocations are based on a state's geographic size, the number of licensed hunters, and the prerequisite that states pay 25 percent of a project's cost. Minnesota has received close to $210 million since the program began. The DNR has used those funds to restore and acquire habitat, conduct wildlife surveys, deliver hunter education and safety programs, and more. In 2012 the DNR's allocation was $11.1 million.
Ironically, many hunters and target shooters are unaware of their economic contribution to wildlife conservation. That's because the tax is paid by manufacturers at the corporate level, rather than by customers at the retail level. As a result, people don't see this tax on their sales receipts for guns, ammunition, archery gear, and related products.
"Some smart people knew what they were doing 75 years ago," said Ryan Bronson, conservation program director for Federal Premium Ammunition of Anoka. "Charles Horn, our owner at the time, was among them. He was involved in the negotiations. He, like others, understood the connection between on-the-ground conservation and the long-term health of the hunting community."
Bronson credits Robertson for wisely inserting a clause into the act that prohibits "the diversion of license fees paid by hunters for any other purpose than the administration of said State fish and game department." Those 22 words, he said, were tantamount to posting a No Trespassing sign on hunting license revenues because any state that used hunting license revenues for a purpose other than wildlife conservation would lose access to the federal aid dollars.
Adding Up for Good. In Minnesota the DNR has used Pittman-Robertson revenues to acquire nearly 400,000 acres of wildlife habitat, which amounts to nearly one-third of the state's wildlife management area system. In recent years the agency has also funded the popular National Archery in the Schools Program, which introduces archery to about 150,000 students per year through physical education classes in more than 330 Minnesota schools. Pittman-Robertson dollars go to maintain the state's 1.3-million-acre WMA system, to conduct prescribed burns that improve habitat, and to provide technical assistance for conservation work.
"The program is regularly reviewed by state and federal auditors to ensure funds are being used appropriately," said Jeanne Daniels, DNR federal aid coordinator. "Hunters should take comfort in knowing rules and guidelines are being followed."
Clearly, wildlife populations have benefitted over the past 75 years. In 1937, for example, Kansas did not allow deer hunting. Today, Kansas hunters harvest about 90,000 deer per year. In the 1930s Arkansas hunters harvested about 300 turkeys a year. Today, the annual harvest tops 10,000. In Minnesota, hunting is as good as or better than it has ever been for most game species. The Pittman-Robertson Act has had a hand in this. Federal funds, for example, have been used to keep the state's deer herd healthy in the face of serious threats from chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis.
Jim Hodgson, regional federal aid chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said it's inspiring to see the accomplishments of the past and the promise of the future. "No other nation has done more to help sustain habitat and hunting participation," said Hodgson. "Our society rallied together 75 years ago in the name of wildlife restoration … and it worked. When hunters say they have done more for wildlife conservation than any other group, they have 75 years and $6 billion of evidence behind them."