Patrick Durkin: Groups hunting for ways to broaden pool of hunters

Written by: Patrick Durkin For the State Journal

LAS VEGAS – Hunting and wildlife conservation face a grim future in North America unless we find ways to increase hunter numbers and/or broaden the pool of “dues-paying” conservationists to fund science-based management programs.

That was the message during a meeting convened by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership at the annual Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show in January. The meeting attracted many TRCP partners in the conservation community, as well hunting-industry trade groups and media representatives. Among those represented were Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever, the Mule Deer Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, Archery Trade Association, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, The Council to Advance the Hunting and Shooting Sports, and the editorial teams of Bugle, Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, and Field and Stream magazines.

The group reviewed the nation’s 2017 legislative agenda on several conservation issues, such as the Pittman-Robertson Modernization Act, the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act, and how a new Congress and White House administration might handle hunting and conservation matters.

The group expressed great concern that one of hunting’s largest groups – baby boomers – is now in its twilight, with individual hunters leaving the field at increasingly faster rates. This is also the group that generated booms in hunting and bowhunting participation since the 1970s, and funded much of North America’s conservation efforts the past 45 to 50 years.

“We’re not overplaying our concerns when we say the North American wildlife conservation model could disappear during the next 18 years,” one speaker said. “Unless we start getting more kids into the hunting pipeline and keep them there, who’s going to buy licenses to fund wildlife agencies, and pay dues to hunting and conservation groups for their conservation programs?”

To address such concerns, many of the groups worked on Capitol Hill the past year pushing the Pittman-Robertson Modernization Act, which failed to pass in December during the final weeks of the Obama administration. The groups support the proposed act because it would let state wildlife agencies use federal-excise tax revenues on public-outreach programs to promote hunting, bowhunting and recreational shooting by archers and firearms enthusiasts.

FET revenues generated by Pittman-Robertson come from sales of most firearms, ammunition, bows and arrows. The IRS collects the money and sends it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which distributes it to state wildlife agencies to fund state-based conservation work.

The P-R Act was established in 1937 to pay for habitat restoration, stocking programs, public-access efforts and other high-priority nationwide conservation projects. P-R revenues are earmarked specifically for conservation initiatives, and cannot be “raided” for other programs.

States currently cannot use P-R money to promote hunting and shooting recreation, even though similar programs promoting recreational fishing can be funded by the companion Dingell-Johnson Act. Further, the P-R Act lets states develop archery and firearms shooting ranges, but only if they’re tied to hunter-education programs. States currently cannot use the money to build ranges whose primary purpose is recreational target shooting for archers and firearms enthusiasts.

When the P-R Act was drafted in 1937, no one anticipated the current declines in hunting participation, or today’s need for more shooting ranges in suburbs and metropolitan areas. The P-R Modernization Act tweaks things to let state wildlife agencies use some FET money to boost recruitment, retention and reactivation efforts in archery and bowhunting.

The Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports formed in 2010 to develop a national hunting and shooting recruitment plan to reverse downward trends in those activities. The U.S. hunting population today is roughly 2 million smaller than it was in the late 1980s. The CAHSS soon crafted the R3 plan – recruitment, retention and reactivation – which would benefit from the legislation.

Ron Regan, executive director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, said it’s also important to reach beyond the hunting and fishing community for long-term funding. Traditionally, “nonconsumptive” groups such as birdwatchers, campers and hikers have resisted attempts to provide sustained funding through state or federal excise taxes on gear they use.

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