Decline In Hunters Threatens How U.S. Pays For Conservation

Tom Wrasse is at his hunting shack alone. Light pours into the small room from a window framed by antlers, harvested from the surrounding central Wisconsin woods. On the opposite wall is a collage of fading photos, showing how big the hunting parties out here used to be.

"I try to keep the tradition alive," Wrasse says, looking at the photos over a cup of coffee. "But no, they've all gone their separate ways."

In rural Wisconsin, the passion for hunting still appears to burn as bright as the blaze orange jackets you'll see stalking through fields or clambering up into trees during deer season. But stop into a meat processing center or a sporting goods store, ask about it at a bar or a hunting shack and you'll hear from people like Wrasse: Fewer people are hunting. "It's just kind of fading away," he says.

A new survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows that today, only about 5 percent of Americans, 16 years old and older, actually hunt. That's half of what it was 50 years ago and the decline is expected to accelerate over the next decade.

Meanwhile other wildlife-centered activities, like birdwatching, hiking and photography, are rapidly growing, as American society and attitudes towards wildlife change.

The shift is being welcomed by some who morally oppose the sport, but it's also leading to a crisis.

State wildlife agencies and the country's wildlife conservation system are heavily dependent on sportsmen for funding. Money generated from license fees and excise taxes on guns, ammunition and angling equipment provide about 60 percent of the funding for state wildlife agencies, which manage most of the wildlife in the U.S.

This user-play, user-pay funding system for wildlife conservation has been lauded and emulated around the world. It has been incredibly successful at restoring the populations of North American game animals, some of which were once hunted nearly to extinction.

But with the slide in hunting participation expected to speed up in the next 10 years, widening funding shortfalls that already exist, there's a growing sense of urgency in the wildlife conservation community to broaden that funding base. Congress is looking at tapping oil and gas revenues. Some states are adding general sales taxes, while others are looking for ways to tweak the user-play, user-pay model to better represent how today's society interacts with wildlife, monetizing activities like wildlife-viewing.

Those efforts are running into a larger question: Is the greater public willing to pay more to protect wildlife?

"Conservationists need to be looking at what is the next step to keep our conservation programs and places strong and healthy," says Mary Jean Huston, director of The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin. "Things need to evolve."

And they need to evolve fast.

In Wisconsin, a lack of funding has prompted the state's Department of Natural Resources to leave staff positions unfilled and cut back on habitat management. Colorado's wildlife agency has cut tens of millions of dollars in expenditures and trimmed programs that deal with invasive species. Vermont's fish and wildlife department, which manages more than 25,000 species and nearly 2,000 native plants, is cautioning that even though the state leads the nation in wildlife viewing, that activity "provides no significant revenue stream to the department that would allow for the management of the resources viewed."

A panel on sustaining America's fish and wildlife resources recently warned: "Without a change in the way we finance fish and wildlife conservation, we can expect the list of federally threatened and endangered species to grow from nearly 1,600 species today to perhaps thousands more in the future."

A demographic wall

In 1992, Tom Heberlein, a rural sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, made a bold prediction: If sociological trends, like increasing urbanization, smaller family sizes and growing anti-hunting sentiment continued, the sport of hunting – as Wisconsinites knew it – could be extinct by the year 2050.

A quarter century later, Keith Warnke, the hunting and shooting sports coordinator for the state of Wisconsin, sits at his desk in downtown Madison looking at a graph of recent hunter data.

"It's just striking how close demographers were in their estimates to the actual hunter numbers," he says.

Warnke is a "recovering biologist," as he puts it, so he collects hunter data and demographics – age, gender, location, etc. – with the same detailed focus that he used to apply to tracking deer populations. Only now, he uses unique identification numbers instead of ear tags.

And while he does not believe that hunters will go extinct in the next few decades – or ever, for that matter – he does know a steeper decline in hunting participation is coming, as Heberlein predicted.

Increased urbanization, restricted access to huntable areas, lack of free time, and the rise of Netflix, video games and all-consuming youth sports are all dropping hunter numbers, but the most-pressing challenge is one that Warnke and others can't do anything about.

"We're up against a demography wall," Warnke says. "A wall of demographics when the number of hunters is really going to decline."

That wall is an age. Sixty-five. That's when the average hunter stops buying licenses and picking up their rifle, Warnke says.

For many hunters in Wisconsin and around the U.S., that wall is rapidly approaching.

Nearly a third of all hunters in the U.S. are baby boomers. They hunted like no other generation since. But the oldest Boomers are already aging out of the sport and the youngest, at 54, are only about a decade away from joining them.

When put on a timeline, that cohort of older hunters looks like a wave, moving through time, that drops as it hits the age of 65. **Here's a visualization of that from Dr. Loren Chase, of the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, that shows the age distribution shifting from 1992 to 2012.**

"What that means is the way that conservation was done in the past is not going to be sufficient in the future," says Randy Stark, the former chief game warden for Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources, or DNR.

Linking hunting to conservation

To understand the connection between hunting and conservation, you need to go back to when deer and geese weren't viewed a public nuisance, but as the rare wildlife they were.

In the late 1800s, American wildlife was in a bad place. Market hunting, trapping, invasive species and American's rapid expansion westward had pushed many wildlife species to the brink.

All of this over-hunting got the attention of a couple of other hunters – one who would go on to found the Audubon Society, another who would become the 26th and youngest president of the United States.

George Bird Grinnell and Theodore Roosevelt, along with others like John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, helped establish the American conservation movement around the idea that wildlife and other natural resources, belong to all Americans – current and future. As such, they needed to be preserved or conserved.

Roosevelt proposed the idea of "conservation through wise use," and started pushing his fellow hunters to help pay for that conservation.

Licenses or permits for hunting already existed. New York sold the first permit to hunt deer in 1864. Under Roosevelt though, the practice spread and license fees became a source of revenue for states.

Then, in 1937, legislation was passed that linked the financing for wildlife conservation to hunting in a way we're still seeing today.

"Nobody could anticipate 100 years later what society would look like," Stark says. "In some ways the way that conservation was funded and conceived in its early years contributes to the problem we have now."

The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, or the Pittman-Robertson Act, as it's more commonly known, requires that states use their revenues from hunting license fees for wildlife management. It also took an existing 11 percent excise tax on guns and ammunition and directed that money to state wildlife agencies for wildlife restoration and protection. A similar act was later passed to tax angling equipment.

More than $19 billion has since been apportioned to state wildlife agencies from funds generated by those taxes.

With gun sales surging in recent years, that pool of money has actually grown. People in the hunting world joke that former president Barack Obama was the greatest conservationist since Roosevelt, because of the record gun sales during his presidency.

But there's a catch.

Tightening belts

To access those federally apportioned funds, states have to pony up some of their own matching money - 25 percent or more of the total they're looking to get back. No match, no money.

"With decreases in license sales, we're getting to the point as a state agency that we're struggling to match those funds," says Eric Lobner, the head of the wildlife division for Wisconsin's DNR.

Many states have increased license fees for out-of-state hunters to compensate for the decrease in license sales, but Lobner says there's only so far you can raise fees before you start pricing people out.

At the same time, he says, the cost of doing business is going up and the demands on his agency are growing. Climate change and development are threatening more species. The public wants protections for animals that it used to not care about. The combination is creating a crunch.

The National Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit conservation organization, says that current funding levels for national wildlife conservation are "less than 5 percent of what is necessary."

In Wisconsin, Lobner says, they've had to cut 16 positions in their program because of budget shortfalls over the last four years - people who would have been managing wildlife and habitat. Open positions are staying vacant longer. Programs and services are being scaled back.

In a report to the Wisconsin legislature's Joint Committee on Finance, the DNR listed several ongoing or potential reductions due to insufficient funds, including fewer game warden patrols, less habitat management, fewer fish surveys and 2,000 acres of shallow wetlands that are being left unmanaged.

Wetlands that, as Lobner points out, don't just serve as wildlife habitat but also help to purify the state's drinking water.

"These are resources that the public wants," Lobner says. "We've been hearing they want to see waterfowl, they want to see deer, they want to see bear, whatever the species it is. They want those resources at their disposal."

The question is: Are they willing to pay for them?

Hunting for more funding

Public support for hunting remains high across the country, even with fewer people participating. Public support for wildlife conservation is even higher.

Nearly 90 percent of Wisconsin residents - Republicans, Democrats and Independents - agree that money should be invested in protecting land, water and wildlife even when the state's budget is tight, according to a poll commissioned by the state's chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

Nationally, 74 percent of Americans believe the country should "do whatever it takes to protect the environment," according to the Pew Research Center.

But in most cases outside of hunting and fishing, that's not being translated into dollars.

Philanthropy and nonprofits have certainly stepped up to try and fill the void, bringing in money for habitat purchases and management. A few states have passed sales taxes to help fund conservation. Others have tapped lottery ticket sales or started selling specialty license plates.

Even Congress is looking for a solution. Legislation, introduced late last year, would redirect revenues from energy and mineral development on federal lands to state wildlife programs. The proposal has bipartisan support, but similar efforts to secure wider funding have failed in the past.

So in most cases, state wildlife agencies like Wisconsin's are going back to the hand that feeds them, doubling down on hunters with programs to retain old hunters, reactivate those who have quit the sport and to recruit new hunters.

For the latter, state wildlife agencies are increasingly looking for new hunters that don't fit the traditional mold by advertising in urban areas, opening stands at farmers markets and staffing community events. In Wisconsin, they're offering free classes on college campuses, teaching hunter's safety and hands on butchering clinics, with the goal of capitalizing on the locavore movement and a renewed interest in wild meat.

These efforts are having success, Warnke says, particularly in recruiting women to the sport.

"But when you look overall, our small group isn't going to change the trend," says Jim Wipperfurth, a volunteer for Wisconsin's DNR who leads recruitment hunts. "There's just so many factors involved, it's hard to just change it."

This pains Wipperfurth and other hunters to say. It's not just the loss of a sport or a revenue source they're trying to stop, but the loss of a tradition and a connection to the natural world, Wipperfurth says.

"Who goes and sits in the woods all day except hunters?" Wipperfurth says. "If hunting didn't exist, who'd know that the squirrel population is down, that a windstorm knocked all these trees down - who'd know all of that stuff? Because we're the ones out here seeing all of it."

The latest numbers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that 86 million Americans participated in wildlife watching in 2016. That was a 20 percent increase from just five years previous. The number of people enjoying outdoor recreation is increasing as well.

"We need to find ways for the rest of those folks, who are canoeing and cross country skiing and biking and going to the park to contribute as well," Huston says.

There have been efforts to tax outdoor equipment like sleeping bags, tents and binoculars. Some in the wildlife management world joke about an "REI Tax," a reference to the chic outdoor retailer.

Those efforts have failed though, in large part because of opposition from the outdoor industry, which argues that it already pays billions of dollars in taxes through import tariffs. That revenue should be used to adequately fund conservation, says the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group that represents retailers like Patagonia and The North Face.

The arguments about funding for conservation can quickly grow divisive. Hunters are quick to write off other outdoor recreationists as hippies and "free riders." Wildlife advocates are quick to paint hunters as hillbillies, clinging to an outdated tradition. But many people are in the middle.

"Wildlife conservation has been at its strongest when hunters and non-hunters are allied together for wildlife," says Adena Rissman, an associate professor of forest and wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin.

The passage of the Lacey Act, the nation's first - and perhaps most powerful - wildlife protection law is a good example, Rissman says. It prohibits the trade of wildlife, fish and plants that have been taken illegally.

That act, Rissman says, was galvanized not just by hunters, but by affluent women's groups that had grown concerned about the millinery trade's impact on bird populations. Feathered hats were in fashion in the late 19th century and hunters were killing millions of birds annually, wiping out entire colonies, to feed the demand. Sport hunters, angry about the sorry state of their quarry, were equally concerned. Together, they helped push lawmakers to a legislative solution.

A similar collaborative effort is needed to address the funding issues of today, Rissman says, and she believes that other wildlife lovers are willing to contribute.

About 20 miles north of Madison, at a quiet, open wildlife sanctuary, Neal Deunk takes pictures of four lonely geese floating on a tiny patch of open water in an otherwise frozen pond. His telephoto lens juts out from the open driver's side window of his car.

Deunk knows the challenges facing wildlife refuges like this, with the decline in hunting and shrinking revenues. He says he'd like to see lawmakers allocate more general tax money to address the situation. But he also thinks it would be prudent to get other wildlife enthusiasts to contribute more.

"It's difficult to license birdwatchers or hikers and so forth in the same way that hunting and fishing can be regulated," he says, watching as a few of the geese take flight. Asked if he'd be willing to pay a license-fee to view wildlife like this, he pauses. "I think I would," he says.

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