*This article will be published in the Summer 2020 edition of Michigan Out-of-Doors
By: Charlie Booher, MUCC Policy Intern
The world is in the midst of a public health emergency, but the health of the conservation community is failing, too.
This is a tragedy that has not been seen in our lifetimes, and we hope that it will never repeat itself. During this crisis, many pundits talk about “returning to normal,” but it is becoming clear that normalcy will be redefined in the coming months and years. As our society wades through drastic changes, the field of wildlife management will inevitably be altered in fundamental ways.
The system we have in the United States was built, in large part, during the 1930s, and it hasn’t changed very much since. As a “user-pay” system, it relies on people buying firearms and hunting and fishing licenses to support state wildlife agencies — organizations that manage, conserve and protect a wide range of fish and wildlife species, not just those that are hunted or fished for. However, without the active, annual participation of these consumptive users, the system begins to run dry.
It isn’t lean. It isn’t responsive. It isn’t working. We’ve known that for a while now — the stress of the COVID-19 outbreak hasn’t created flaws in the system as much as it has exacerbated them. These stressors exist at the state level through a reliance on license sales and state general funding deficits and at the federal level through uncertainty related to excise tax collection. This issue extends far beyond what is known colloquially as the “hook and bullet” crowd, and it will jeopardize programs that benefit endangered species, songbirds, state parks and Michigan’s beaches that we so love.
This pandemic represents a potential crisis for fish and wildlife agencies, said Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) Executive in Residence at Michigan State University Russ Mason.
“In a nutshell, the first concern is that many agencies are experiencing a drop in license revenue because ‘point of sale’ licenses in stores are mostly unavailable,” Mason said. “The second threat is that the amount of Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson [both excise taxes, more to come later] funding each agency can get depends in part on each states’ number of unique license buyers. Fewer buyers translate into fewer federal dollars.”
The First Losses
This graphic outlines the MDNR budget. “General Fund” monies may be subject to a rescission, “Federal” funds may be impacted by a deferment of excise tax payments or an inability to match funds, and “State Restricted” money is collected through licenses and fees, which could suffer during the COVID-19 crisis.
On the state level, hunting and fishing license sales have been falling steadily for the last two decades and will likely see an even further decline with the impact of COVID-19. Demographic trends mainly drive this drop as members of the baby-boomer generation age-out of hunting and are replaced by fewer and fewer young people. Still, the magnitude of the repercussions due to COVID-19 are mostly unknown. As we lose traditional users like hunters and anglers, the funding system will continue to break down. Some states have been able to patch their hemorrhaging budgets by selling licenses online and working to market licenses differently; however, these are only temporary solutions to this long-standing problem. This issue also extends far beyond the state of Michigan, as many western states close down drawn hunts and withdraw governor’s tags, budgets will continue to be slashed. Losing these big-ticket, out-of-state revenue streams will create gaping holes in the accounting of state wildlife agencies that will need to be filled or we risk conservation efforts for all species falling behind.
In addition to the decline in license revenue, the State of Michigan as a whole faces budget deficits to the magnitude of several billion dollars. So it is not unlikely that general funds from the state budget will be repurposed for COVID-19 response efforts. These are likely to include a wide variety of medical supplies and other healthcare needs, as well as unemployment insurance claims and workforce training programs. Expenditures like these will hopefully preserve the health and safety of the people of this state and the country, but this rescission will likely leave agencies like the MDNR underfunded.
“During the COVID-19 crisis, there are huge expenses that are necessary to sustain human lives,” said Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) Executive Director Amy Trotter. “We at MUCC sincerely appreciate our healthcare workers and strongly support them in this time of great need, but we can’t let fisheries and wildlife management fall to the wayside. Unfortunately, the expenses required to deal with this crisis will leave much, much less in the state budget for fisheries and wildlife management and natural resource conservation.”
One silver lining Trotter noted is that MUCC members and leadership had the foresight to protect game and fish through the creation of the game and fish protection account of the Michigan conservation and legacy fund in 2006.
“While budgets may be stretched thin as a loss of general fund monies, game and fish protection account funds cannot be used for purposes outside of fish, wildlife, research and law enforcement without changing the Michigan state constitution,” Trotter said.
If there is a rescission of state general funds, it could be the case that the MDNR will be required to use these funds to operate programs that are unrelated to active fisheries and wildlife conservation. While the MDNR will likely still be working towards the conservation, protection, management, use and enjoyment of the state’s natural resources, it is likely that they will have fewer financial resources from the state to use.
So, instead of going into food plots, wetland management structures and landscape-scale timber management, some license dollars could be put towards other costs like conservation officers and their vehicles, fuel and equipment. While these individuals are critical to the operation of the department, this move would take resources and effort away from scientific wildlife management.
Given the great funding challenges that the conservation community will likely be facing, it is critical that the state strongly support our biologists, managers and conservation officer corps with general fund monies to ensure the MDNR can continue to manage the natural resources of the Great Lakes State. The ways in which the Michigan government reacts to this crisis will also have an impact on the state’s ability to take advantage of federal funds.
A Conservation Nation — Unstable
While wildlife management remains largely a state issue, a great deal of funding for these efforts is collected and distributed at the federal level. In 1937, the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (PR) was passed through Congress. This piece of legislation levied an 11 percent excise tax on firearms and ammunition, dedicating that funding to wildlife management, conservation and restoration. With the evolution of bows and arrows, Congress later moved to levy the same excise tax on archery equipment as well.
PR was mirrored by the Dingell-Johnson Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act (DJ) in 1950, which placed a similar tax on boats, tackle and marine fuel for the purposes of funding fisheries management.
Collectively, these federal monies fund a huge portion of state fish and wildlife agency budgets, and hundreds of millions of dollars are collected under these levies annually. For reference, the MDNR received over $75 million from these funds in fiscal year 2019.
State fish and wildlife agencies, like the MDNR, use this money to hire staff, manage habitats and purchase land for conservation — especially State Game Areas (SGAs) in the southern portion of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The apportionment and dispersal of this funding are determined by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) by using the number of unique, individual hunting and fishing license buyers to determine funding eligibility. Once eligible, states must match 25 percent of PR and DJ funds. If the state loses these individual license buyers or is unable to meet the match criteria, then the MDNR will forfeit this federal money.
Here’s where the problems start to multiply even further: some members of the archery and firearm manufacturing industry are trying to squirm out of these age-old excise taxes during the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19. The federal government has already issued a deferral of the collection of PR funds from firearm manufacturers for one fiscal quarter, and it appears likely that members of the Archery Trade Association will receive the same benefits.
This will provide some temporary financial relief for some of the businesses associated with the outdoor recreation industry, but it could leave state fish and wildlife agencies high-and-dry. Of course, there are a number of industries seeking relief from government tax liabilities, but this deferment comes in the midst of one of the best periods of sales in the last 25 years. March 2020 and the onset of the COVID crisis accompanies the election of President Barack Obama and the month following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT for the highest monthly firearm sales since 1998. Friday, March 20, 2020 shattered the record for the highest number of firearms background checks conducted nationwide in a single day: a total of 210,308 — a number higher than any during the Obama administration.
“It is bitterly ironic that even while gun sales are surging and excise taxes are pouring into the federal coffers, states may be denied access to the critical conservation funding upon which our nation’s wildlife populations rely,” said Safari Club International CEO W. Laird Hamberlin in a recent editorial.
It is important to keep in mind that as long as this deferment is not lengthened — or forgiven — state fish and wildlife agencies will be able to continue to take advantage of these record sales. However, it is still unclear what the future may hold for this money and how these funds may ultimately be delivered to fisheries and wildlife managers. It is essential that these taxes are paid in a timely fashion for the current system to hold up and so state fish and wildlife agencies are able to remain operational, but it seems to be only holding on by a thread.
We have now come to a point where the system — built on the backs of travel-restricted, license-buying baby-boomers and firearm enthusiasts — is failing.
For now, state, federal and industry leaders need to make moves to ensure that state fish and wildlife agencies are well-equipped in the short- and long-term. The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA), a group representing all 50 state natural resource agencies, and many other conservation organizations are working with Congress and the USFWS to provide temporary financial relief to state fish and wildlife agencies. As of right now, this reprieve could last for a period of up to six federal fiscal years, beginning with funding apportioned in fiscal year 2020. Using funding allocation formulas from previous, more stable fiscal years and reducing the non-federal match requirement for PR dollars will likely help state agencies stay afloat through this financial uncertainty. While measures are being considered at a high level to help these agencies in the short-term, there are a number of things that individuals can do to help as well.
The best thing we can do in the short-term to curb the loss of hunters and anglers is to buy a license and pass our heritage on to the next generation. Photo provided by Andy Duffy.
This system needs people like you to continue buying hunting and fishing licenses — and to support non-governmental, nonprofit conservation organizations who often carry the excess load of conservation habitat, R3 (recruitment, retention and reactivation of hunters and anglers), and natural resource policy work.
“The most important thing every hunter, angler and conservationist can do is to buy a license,” Mason said. “As well, if you can, continue to financially support the community of non-governmental hunting, fishing and conservation organizations. It’s up to us – literally – to make sure that the wildlife and fish resources we enjoy are healthy and available for future generations.”
With so many fundraising events canceled around the country, these nonprofit organizations need you to continue your memberships. Ducks Unlimited, the National Wildlife Federation, the Ruffed Grouse Society, Quality Deer Management Association, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, MUCC’s affiliates and many other nonprofit organizations and their employees are all hurting in the midst of this public health catastrophe.
“As a result of COVID-19, fundraising events have been postponed around the country during the height of our fundraising season. These events bring in the majority of our revenue and memberships to the National Wild Turkey Federation. While we have encouraged our members to stay engaged and give online, we are not alone,” said Becky Humphries, CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation. “Other conservation groups are experiencing similar challenges. Unfortunately, without members or revenue, we will have less to invest in conservation delivery in the future.”
Nonprofit organizations spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on projects that benefit fish and wildlife on public lands and waters across the country. However, they cannot do it without the individual support of thousands of members. Now is the time to stand together and do the right thing for all of these groups.
Once there are stopgaps in place, leaders in the conservation community need to put their heads together and figure out a funding mechanism and a way of doing business that is suited to the needs of a post-COVID world. AFWA Executive Director Ron Regan predicts that the state fish and wildlife agencies across the country will need to be lean and adaptive to modern threats.
“State fish and wildlife agencies will face new challenges to remain relevant to 21st-century constituents, especially following this public health crisis,” Regan said. “The next decade will see new opportunities for these state agencies to engage new partners, assume an enhanced role in wildlife and human health and redefine the importance of fish and wildlife to the citizens of this country.”
Traditional conservation organizations, made up of hunters and anglers, will likely play a role in crafting this new policy framework.
“Hunters are North America’s original conservationists, and they, and other consumptive-user groups like trappers and anglers, will continue to play a fundamental, important role in wildlife management,” said Cyrus Baird, regional manager of state government relations for Safari Club International. “Moving forward, the role and influence of hunters will be one of leadership — a position that will lead us into a system of conservation suited to meet the needs of the 21st century and beyond.”
Expanding the Base
However, with hunters and anglers on the decline, these groups can likely no longer withstand being the only people propping up the system. State wildlife agencies will need to broaden their missions to reach the non-hunting and non-angling publics as these constituencies inevitably shrink. In this way, agencies will be able to expand their traditional bases of support and build crucial partnerships with a wide range of stakeholders. Furthermore, agencies will also need to expand their areas of focus to encompass topics that are of concern to a wider public audience.
A key area of interest to leaders in the conservation community is the relevance of wildlife health, especially in assessing and mitigating threats of zoonotic diseases. With the massive spikes in COVID-19 cases in 2020, leaders are worried about the potential for wildlife to serve as pools or vectors of disease. State agencies, working with universities, hospitals and federal agencies, have a role to play in doing research on disease ecology and in human health. Wildlife disease laboratories will likely be further stressed to give policymakers the crucial information needed to make informed decisions. Yet, this important research and innovative adaptation rely on the same, old funding model.
One mechanism for a new system could be through the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA; H.R. 3742). This bill is the product of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish & Wildlife Resources, which was chaired by Bass Pro Shops founder John L. Morris and former Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal. This bill has been introduced in the last two sessions of Congress, would appropriate dedicated funding for states to fulfill federally-mandated State Wildlife Action Plans. These plans outline blueprints for the recovery of a wide range of species and identify projects that are ready to be put into action. Thus, this legislation has the potential to be good for our national economy, habitat and the species that depend on us.
“The COVID-19 crisis has underscored the importance of wildlife and the outdoors for millions of Americans,” said Drew YoungeDyke, manager of sporting communications for the National Wildlife Federation. “The recovery of our country and the recovery of wildlife go hand-in-hand — a recovery that can put people to work immediately implementing shovel-ready plans that state wildlife agencies already have through the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.”
This potential solution would also reduce state fish and wildlife agencies’ reliance on monies from licenses and fees and may reduce the extent to which they are beholden to firearm and ammunition sales that are increasingly unrelated to hunting. It is one way out of this funding disaster and may play a role in a financial recovery package after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. I certainly hope that it gains enough political capital to move its way through Congress, but the leaders of this field must also be open to other innovative solutions to these chronic problems.
An Uncertain Future
These are truly scary times for all of us. As a future natural resource professional, it is unclear the direction in which my field of study will take in the next six months; nevermind the next thirty or forty years.
I have been reminded many times during our social distancing orders that character is not created in a crisis — it is simply revealed. The same is true of our community, and this crisis is revealing fundamental flaws in our systems. However, I see this as an inflection point for conservation. We have reached a critical point at which hunters, hikers, anglers, boaters, trappers and paddlers will need to join with local, state and federal policymakers to build a system that our grandchildren can rely on.
I’m not sure how we are going to do it, but I do know that building this new reality will certainly take a great deal of thoughtful consideration, ambition, analytical research and could use a whole lot of time that we simply do not have. This new approach must encompass local, state and federal government entities, as well as industry and nonprofit leaders. It must be agile and adaptable to the problems that we face in this century and beyond. It will need to bring groups to the table that have never had a seat or an invitation before. It requires true, unhindered innovation and widespread support from everyday Americans to succeed.
In thinking about the development of this new system, I am reminded that the conservation of the fish and wildlife of this country requires a system more efficient than government, more empathetic than industry, more interconnected than contemporary academia and more insightful than any one individual.
As I graduate from Michigan State University in May, that is the charge that I take into my career — and a question that faces all of us concerned about the conservation of wildlife and wild places. But not one of us can do it alone.