By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist
Funding for wildlife conservation and management nationwide is currently under threat, as advocates on both the right and left target provisions of an 85-year-old federal law.
The Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act provides for an excise tax on the sale of firearms, archery equipment and ammunition.
Proceeds from the 11% tax are distributed to state wildlife management agencies for managing and restoring wild animal populations, conducting scientific research, restoring and acquiring habitat, supporting hunter safety education and maintaining public gun ranges.
The act was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 – amid the Dust Bowl years and the Great Depression – at a time when many wildlife populations had been decimated and Americans struggled to put food on their tables. It serves as the financial foundation for many state wildlife management agencies.
Since its inception, the act has generated more than $15 billion for state wildlife management programs. The money is allocated to the states based on a formula that considers the land size of the state in proportion to the rest of the country, and the number of hunting licenses sold in proportion to the other states. States are required to match 25% to receive their annual allocation.
The amount of annual revenue that goes to the states is significant. For example, Wyoming received about $12 million in Pittman-Robertson funds in 2019. Wyoming received $65.8 million in the five years from 2015 to 2019.
Revenues going to the states from the Pittman-Robertson excise tax increase every year as gun sales increase. Many of those gun sales are now for personal protection rather than hunting, but the taxes from the sales goes toward wildlife conservation and public hunting and shooting opportunities across the country.
The Pittman-Robertson funds, as well as a similar tax on fishing gear, serve as the Wyoming Game & Fish Department’s major source of revenue outside of the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.
Repealing Gun Tax
While the Pittman-Robertson funding program has traditionally enjoyed widespread bipartisan support, that appears to be changing.
One member of Congress now claims, “If the government can tax an individual’s constitutional right, then it’s not really a right at all.” U.S. Representative Andrew Clyde, a Georgia Republican, has introduced legislation to eliminate this excise tax.
Calling his bill RETURN (Repealing Excise Tax on Unalienable Rights Now), Clyde stated, “I firmly believe that no American should be taxed on their enumerated rights, which is why I intend to stop the Left’s tyranny in its tracks by eliminating the federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition.”
Recognizing the widespread support for funding state wildlife conservation efforts, Clyde’s bill proposes an alternate source of funding.
He wrote, “Since the current firearms tax revenue funds beneficial programs under the Pittman-Robertson Act, such as hunter education and environmental care, this legislation redirects unallocated lease revenue generated by onshore and offshore energy development on federal lands, which currently flows into the general fund, to continue funding those important programs.”
But with the boom-and-bust cycle of energy development, and the current administration’s dim view of oil and gas development on federal land, that’s not a reliable source of funding.
Clyde’s bill was apparently filed in response to a bill filed by an East Coast Democrat that would place a 1000% tax on semi-automatic firearms and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
The controversy stirred by both bills prompted more than 40 hunting and sportsmen organizations to sign a letter to Congress supporting the current funding system from the Pittman-Robertson act. Fortunately, neither bill has a chance of passing through Congress this session.
Although Clyde’s bill to eliminate the excise tax had 56 co-sponsors when it was filed in late June, seven representatives have since withdrawn their support.
Hold the Money Hostage
While some right-leaning Republicans argue against taxation on firearms, left-leaning advocates have adopted another tactic.
Last week, the Center For Biological Diversity submitted a petition to the U.S. Interior Department (DOI) asking the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to halt distribution of Pittman-Robertson funds to the states of Idaho and Montana until those states change their wolf-hunting laws.
Idaho and Montana should be disqualified from receiving such conservation funds “because they have passed legislation creating anti-predator wildlife management programs aimed at drastically reducing their ecologically important wolf populations,” according to the petition, an action they say clashes with the purpose and conservation mandate of the federal act.
Among the groups supporting the petition were the usual groups (Western Watersheds Project, Wild Earth Guardians, Humane Society of the United States, etc.) and two Wyoming-based groups: Wyoming Untrapped and Wyoming Wildlife Advocates.
The petition notes: “By withholding funding from Idaho and Montana, DOI and FWS can fulfill the Pittman-Robertson Act’s purpose and show other states that such federal financial support is contingent on sound wildlife management. When states pass legislation with the sole purpose of killing ecologically important wildlife like wolves, they should not be rewarded with federal aid intended for states that truly conserve wildlife.”
Withholding Pittman-Robertson funds from state wildlife managers would severely hamper these state agencies. According to the Congressional Research Service, Idaho received $11.8 million in Pittman-Robertson funds in 2019, while Montana received $16 million the same year. And overall gun sales in the United States have skyrocketed in the last few years, doubling the number of gun sales in 2021 than the year prior.
These so-called “conservation” groups propose to hold state wildlife funding hostage unless they get their way on wolf management.
That they would withhold millions of dollars in conservation funding for a wide variety of species to try to pressure the states to change their wolf hunting laws is appalling.
That they would pave the way for neglect of all other species says much about their motivation. It’s just the latest ploy by wolf advocates who want wolves under permanent federal protection. As they have shown with this move, all other species be damned.
May cooler heads prevail, so we can continue the 85-year success of the Pittman-Robertson act unchanged.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.