Do Hunters and Anglers Still Matter?
“If we’re going to maintain the system, we have to have robust participation beyond 55-year-old white guys.”
Hunters and anglers reversed the march of extinction at the turn of the last century. Species and wild places now face a similar menu of threats, from hors d’oeuvres of minor calamities to entrees of systemic collapse. Hunters and anglers matter now more than ever and are an essential ingredient to preserving the ongoing conservation legacy of the United States into the 21st century and beyond.
The roots of conservation
It’s difficult to imagine the dire straits plants and animals faced one hundred years ago. At the turn of the 19th century, the charismatic flora and fauna epitomizing our landscapes were extirpated from nearly every corner of their home ranges. Many species, including the passenger pigeon, were wiped from the face of the earth in a few short decades. The buffalo, elk, turkey, and deer were next. Unregulated harvest, market hunting, and thoughtless extraction of natural resources left animal and plant species large and small teetering on the edge of annihilation.
In the face of imminent extinction, the North American Conservation Model was born.
The North American Model saved countless species from the brink of extinction, returned critters and fauna to native lands, and vastly improved the overall fabric of what we know as wilderness.
“All of these species we sort of take for granted now were teetering on the edge,” said Whit Fosburgh, president, and CEO of Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Pick your favorite species, and there’s a high chance it was saved from the brink thanks largely (or wholly) to hunters’ and anglers’ dollars and advocacy.
The motivation behind conserving game species is inherently selfish: Hunters and anglers don’t want to lose the animals they love to chase and eat. But as sportspeople strove to save them, habitat was spared from development, rivers and lands were improved, and places were set aside in perpetuity as habitat.
From the National Park System to hunting laws and funding mechanisms, the backbone of modern conservation stemmed from hunters and anglers passionate about preserving quarry and habitat.
“Throughout history, it is shown that hunters and anglers show up every time.”
That’s Land Tawney, President, and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, an organization dedicated to expanding protections and access to public land.
I asked Tawney what role hunters and anglers play in conservation. Tawney got right to the point.
“The root [of conservation] is hunters and anglers,” he said. “We’re out there every single day, and there’s no one that has more of a vested interest in wild places and wildlife.”
The financial case for hunting and angling
The 640 million acres of U.S. federal land are funded from general revenue paid by taxpayer dollars. But preserving land isn’t enough for a regenerative conservation ethic. People need to be direct participants in a world inextricably tied to our actions. Funding aside, what retains and drives sustainable conservation is people who have skin in the game, and history shows nothing does that more than fishing and hunting.
In the heyday of the extinction crisis, setting aside preserves for beleaguered species’ survival wasn’t enough. Species and habitat had to be actively managed to recover, requiring captive breeding programs, live capture and release, and rigorous habitat management.
“The preservation mindset doesn’t want you to kill animals, to actively manage habitat,” Fosburgh said. “Whereas the conservation side recognizes that we’re a part of the ecosystem, too, and that active management is not only good, it’s essential.”
This active management was relegated mainly to state game agencies.
“State fish and game agencies are doing that work,” said Fosburgh, “and there’s nobody else giving the money to do that [besides hunters and anglers]. If that disappears, there’s no question you’d see dilution in both wildlife management and habitat projects.”
States are traditionally incumbent to produce effective management programs for the vast majority of critters and their habitats spanning these United States, including on most federal land.
Hunting and fishing licenses went a long way in funding state fish and game agencies, but it wasn’t enough. Conservation needed a serious boost. The hunting and fishing community answered with the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts.
The PRA imposes a 10 to 11 percent excise tax on common hunting and shooting supplies such as guns, ammunition, archery equipment, and more. The DJA does a similar thing for fishing and boating equipment. Both acts were passed quickly with bipartisan support and backing from the hunting and fishing community.
To date, the U.S. Department of the Interior has distributed over $23 billion of PRA and DJA funds for state conservation and recreation projects.
In my home state of Michigan, hunting and fishing license fees are the largest source of revenue for the Department of Natural Resources. Next up are the combined funds of the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts.
Without license and excise tax revenue, Michigan would have lost a combined $97 million in funding for wildlife and habitat in 2020, a fifth of the agency’s total funding. That’s just one state out of 50, plus D.C. and the territories.
“That is what needs to happen in this country to not only help fund what we all care about but also make people proud of how they’re paying into the system,” Tawney said. “When I go out and talk to people, that’s one of the things they’re most proud of. When they buy fishing licenses and hunting licenses and pay excise taxes, they’re paying into the system. They’re proud of that.”
Another hunter-initiated funding mechanism, the Federal Duck Stamp, has contributed over $1 billion to wetland conservation since 1934. Every waterfowl hunter in the country must purchase a duck stamp for legal take, and all proceeds are earmarked to benefit waterfowl and their habitat.
Excise taxes, hunting and fishing licenses, and duck stamp revenue accounted for $2.7 billion in 2020 earmarked for fish and game conservation. This doesn’t include various government grants, sportsmen non-profit contributions, or tax revenue from other hunting or fishing-related activities.
Without hunters and anglers empowering state fish and game agencies, we’d have vast swaths of private and federal land devoid of biodiversity.
Skin in the game: Hunters’ and anglers’ intrinsic contributions to conservation
Financial outcomes are the least important reason to value hunters and anglers in conservation. An intrinsic connection to the land imbues sportspeople with a zealous conservation ethic, leading to disproportionate positive environmental outcomes considering the few hunters and anglers paying into the system.
“This is less about money and more about ethos” — Tawney.
We need more folks who share the sportsperson’s ethos, people with mouths and minds open when it comes to advocacy and engagement in conservation.
The pie needs to be expanded because keeping wild places wild will only get harder.
Asphalt and concrete don’t need protection.
“We don’t have many wild places left,” Fosburgh said. “The places that inspired Roosevelt are much less wild today. What do we do to continue those wild places?”
The North American Model is criticized for seeing everything through the lens of a rifle scope. Many stakeholders have been left out of the conversation because they haven’t “ponied up.” Tawney wants this problem rectified without hunters and anglers losing their voices.
“People who hunt and fish have a very intimate, intimate relationship with fish and wildlife,” Tawney said.
“What makes sense to me is perpetuating the hunting and fishing culture that we have in North America and thinking about how we can add and engage other people that can contribute to this conservation legacy.”
Sportswomen and men provide much-needed funding and guarantee the essential ingredient to a sustainable conservation ethic: Passionate people with boots on the ground and skin in the game. Fosburgh hopes for a Renaissance of hunters, anglers, and other outdoor stakeholders working hand-in-hand for active conservation, people who happily open their wallets and actively engage in the natural places their money is protecting.
“If they want to have quality experiences, follow the model of the sportsman’s community, invest in the system yourselves, and make sure your interests are taken care of,” Fosburgh said.
That initial thrust of conservation was diverse, and it must be so today.
Hunting and fishing are only two of many ways people enjoy the outdoors. It just so happens they’re the only two with built-in mechanisms disproportionately paying for conservation. Virtually every other outdoor group enjoys their sport thanks to general taxpayer funds.
Tawney thinks other stakeholder groups would be eager to adopt similar models to do their part to perpetuate a thriving, equitable conservation ethic for the 21st century.
“Naturally, hunters and fishers have done it because they are pursuing their quarry all the time; they have an intimate relationship with these species,” said Tawney. “Let’s celebrate that, but at the same time, bring other people to the fold that aren’t experiencing that in exactly the same way.”
Fosburgh pointed to solid relationships with major players in the outdoor recreation industries, big-name players epitomized by yerba mate-sipping barefoot backpackers rather than an elk hunter. Not only do other recreational sports benefit from hunting and fishing wins, but a lot of hunters and anglers wear Patagonia and Columbia garments, representing a salad bowl of stakeholders converging on one shared love: The Great Outdoors. All other external distinctions are frivolous compared to the common goal.
“We all love public lands, we all love seeing wildlife, and we enjoy it in different ways, but let’s not let differences separate us and create unnatural divisions in our communities,” Fosburgh said. “These lands mean so much to all of us, so how do we all pay into the system?”
Stone Glacier, First Light, Patagonia, and others have a self-imposed “tax” for conservation. Tawney would like to see a universal policy codifying industry pay-in.
Every generation faces a defining moment. Over a hundred years ago, the sporting community punched above its weight during the extinction crisis, and it will do it again in response to the graver threat of climate change.
Beyond hunting and fishing: sportsperson-funded conservation and climate change
Hunters and anglers play a vital financial and advocative role in bringing climate-friendly habitat management to fruition. Regardless of whether a hunter or angler “believes” in climate change, their dollars help pay for systems that benefit habitat and climate.
The conservation tradition started by hunters and anglers results in clean air and water, recovered species, and millions of acres of public land. Securing land and water suitable for the fair chase of animals we love proves invaluable in our fight for a climate-friendly planet.
“From a scientific standpoint, well-managed fish and wildlife mean well-managed habitat,” Fosburgh said. “This is actually a very important part of dealing with climate change.”
Conserving temperate ecosystems ranks high in Project Drawdown’s climate solutions database. The hunting and angling communities’ proven conservation track record represents an incredible opportunity to layer on value to what they’ve been doing for over a hundred years. And there’s a built-in carrot for enticement: Do nothing to fight climate change, and we’ll lose so much of what hunters and anglers have fought for.
Hunters and anglers are the first to see the changes to their beloved hunting and fishing grounds. Few get more pissed off, saddened, and just plain confused over the frontlines of climate change than do hunters and anglers.
They’re the ones seeing the birthing pains of a climate in crisis: The rut starting later, wildlife disease, disrupted bird migrations, and the northern retreat of ice fishing.
On a personal note, I’ve cried more than a time or two over what I’m seeing happen to my hunting and fishing grounds.
Hunters and anglers are addressing these issues through state game agencies, whether they attribute them to anthropogenic climate change or not. Once the climate-connection is made, they’ll rally like they did during the extinction crisis.
Fosburgh’s and Tawney’s organizations joined 40 other hunting, fishing, and conservation non-profits in signing the 2020 Sportsmen and Sportswomen Climate Statement. The statement met virtually no opposition from its diverse signers, indicating the hunting and angling communities are getting serious about shouldering climate change as a conservation issue.
Though hunting is not a sustainable substitute for all forms of meat, it holds value in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and ecological degradation and is drastically healthier than domestically raised counterparts.
U.S. deer harvests produce over 640 million pounds of consumable meat each season, avoiding over 7 million tons of CO2 produced by an equal weight of beef. To assess the latent value of wild harvest, the Wild Harvest Initiative has launched a pioneering project to quantify the economic, social, and ecological significance of wild fish and game harvested and consumed in the United States.
The regenerative nature of wild harvest is an object lesson of how working with nature produces a net climate benefit while securing sustainable, healthy foods. Hunters and anglers possess valuable knowledge of wooing sustenance from the natural world in a way that heals systems marred by human ignorance.
“None of what’s happened in North America has happened on accident,” Tawney said. “It started with hunters and anglers, and we’ve been carrying the day. But what’s the next chapter?”
“We have a growing constituency that might not look like the traditional conservationists in the country, which have been hunters and anglers. How do we embrace them?”
Telling the story and engaging them in the future is paramount.
“To me, conversations are the epic crux of what we do,” Tawney said. “The more we bring people into our fold and have conversations … the more we’re going to have conversations that make sense versus just rhetoric.”
The opposite of rhetoric is conversation.
“Make your voice heard,” Fosburgh concluded. “Advocacy is critically important in all of this work. And then get out and get your hands dirty.”
Post Script: Regardless of your conservation persuasion, supporting your state’s fish and game department and federal conservation initiatives go a long way. If you enjoy the outdoors in any way, whether it be on public or private property, purchase a state recreation pass, fishing license, or hunting license. Bird watchers and waterfowl hunters alike should buy a federal duck stamp to conserve their shared passion. To go further, please join/contribute to a conservation organization of your choice. We’re all in this together. When conservation wins, we all do.