Conservation: A Law That Keeps On Giving

An ingenious, 75-year-old federal law has funneled billions of dollars into state wildlife and outdoor recreation programs

  • Doug Stewart
  • Conservation
  • Jan 12, 2012

IN THE DEPTHS OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION, Americans were no more likely to welcome a new tax than they are today. But an ingenious piece of tax legislation sailed through Congress in 1937 with bipartisan support and was quickly signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

To those who know about the law (and most of the public does not), it’s called the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. For 75 years now, in good times and bad, through surpluses and deficits, the measure has quietly channeled a steady flow of money—more than $12 billion so far—to pay for wildlife management in all 50 states. “No other funding source for conservation is this steady and reliable,” says Naomi Edelson, NWF’s director of state and federal wildlife partnerships. “It’s free from the shenanigans on Capitol Hill. That’s the beauty of it.”

Commonly called the Pittman-Robertson Act, the law has helped restore populations of bighorn sheep in the southern Rocky Mountains, bobwhite quail in Virginia, ruffed grouse in Pennsylvania and wild turkeys in several regions. It has supported outdoor education for Alabama schoolchildren and a variety of outdoor recreation programs in other states. And across the country, it has assisted states in acquiring wetlands vital to ducks, geese and other waterfowl.

The money comes from an 11 percent federal tax on firearms, ammunition and bows and arrows. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hands the money over to state wildlife departments, which decide how to spend it. The people paying the tax—primarily hunters—are those who benefit most directly. But the law helps society as a whole, too. It is flexible enough to pay for research on bobcats and mountain lions, while helping biologists study the complexities of how humans and wildlife can comfortably coexist.

Through the 19th century, many people in this country saw game as an inexhaustible resource. They shot, trapped or netted wildlife for food or feathers, often with abandon. As a result, by the early 1900s, game counts had plummeted. Conservationists warned that once-ubiquitous animals such as white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, beavers and black bears were doomed to extinction. The problem wasn’t just abuse. It also was lack of understanding about the principles of wildlife management. At the time, even experts thought the best way to protect wild animals was to confine them to refuges, often tiny ones. As for wolves and other predators, the overriding policy was that the best one was a dead one.

By the 1930s, some authorities realized that more scientific means of protecting wildlife were needed, along with enough money to make sure that those means worked. In 1934, Jay N. “Ding” Darling, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist who served as President Roosevelt’s wildlife guru (and who founded the National Wildlife Federation in 1936), designed the first federal Duck Stamp, still an important source from sportsmen of wildlife conservation funding. Three years later, Nevada Senator Key Pittman and Virginia Congressman Willis Robertson devised the bill that carries their name. The law’s backers, which included Darling and the fledgling NWF, made clear that the states were to focus on setting aside habitat while pursuing wildlife research.

The unbroken stream of funding since then is a key reason that game is flourishing in much of the United States, sometimes in places where, in the past, it had disappeared for many years. The idea of visiting Kentucky to see elk, for example, might seem like looking for moose in Manhattan, but huge herds of elk once roamed hilly eastern Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia. Starting in 1997, roughly $2 million in Pittman-Robertson funds helped bring 1,500 transplanted Rocky Mountain elk to the state. Now more than 10,000 of the animals graze a swath of rural eastern Kentucky the size of Yellowstone National Park.

It’s actually better elk habitat than where the animals came from, observes Tina Brunjes, deer and elk program coordinator for the state’s fish and wildlife department. With a longer plant-growing season and milder winters, Kentucky elk are developing faster and bigger than their western counterparts.

“Of course, our elk are missing their top predator, which is wolves,” Brunjes adds, “so humans are kind of filling that niche and keeping the herds in check.” The program has attracted not just sportsmen but also ecotourists—all of which helps the local economy.

Hunting has lost popularity in many areas of the United States since 1937, a trend that Pittman and Robertson probably didn’t foresee. This could have been a serious blow to wildlife funding throughout the country, but in 1970 Congress amended the law, adding tax revenues from nonsport firearms. One way or another, Pittman-Robertson keeps delivering.

Writer Doug Stewart lives in coastal Massachusetts surrounded by wild turkeys and white-tailed deer, two species that have been restored to the region with help from Pittman-Robertson funding.

NWF Program: Helping States Protect Wildlife

As part of its efforts to prevent declining wildlife from becoming endangered, NWF actively advocates for reliable conservation funding for state agencies from sources such as Pittman-Robertson and the federal State Wildlife Grants Program. The Federation also assists states with updating their mandated wildlife action plans, which serve as blueprints for conservation action. This includes conducting vulnerability assessments to help wildlife agencies better understand which species and habitats are most impacted by climate change, and why.

“Our goal is to assist states in taking on-the-ground actions to assist wildlife in adapting to the effects of a changing climate,” says Naomi Edelson, NWF director of state and federal wildlife partnerships. To help reach that goal, NWF is convening work groups made up of experts to provide guidance on climate-smart planning.  

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