Sportsmen & Conservation

Hunters and anglers are North America’s greatest conservationists


Photo © Steven Bristol

By Matt Young

For more than a century, sportsmen have stood at the forefront of the conservation movement in North America. Billions of dollars paid by hunters and anglers for license fees and excise taxes on sporting goods have conserved tens of millions of acres of wildlife habitat, and these revenues remain the primary funding source for state conservation agencies across the United States. Sportsmen also have been the driving force behind critical national and state conservation legislation; have founded and generously contribute to nonprofit conservation organizations; and directly own, lease, and manage land themselves for wildlife. Their conservation leadership has not only helped to ensure a bright future for waterfowl and other game, but has also benefited a host of other wildlife—including several threatened and endangered species—that share the same habitats.

A recent nationwide telephone poll conducted by Ducks Unlimited confirmed that, compared with the general public, hunters as a group are significantly more committed to conserving wildlife habitat. The survey found that hunters were more than three times as likely as nonhunters to participate in organized wildlife conservation efforts. Fifty-one percent of hunters said they belonged or contributed to conservation organizations, compared with only 15 percent of nonhunters.

"There is no doubt that waterfowlers and other hunters are the most passionate and sincere supporters of wildlife habitat conservation," says DU Executive Vice President Don Young. "We certainly see this within our own organization. DU was founded by a group of far-sighted sportsmen 66 years ago, and, today, 90 percent of our members are active hunters who want to give something back to the resource."

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), sportsmen provided $1.8 billion in 2001 through license fees and taxes alone to help fund conservation efforts nationwide. That same year, hunters contributed another $200 million to conservation organizations, including DU, and other sportsmen's groups, and spent a staggering $4 billion to lease, manage, and own land for hunting. The following is an in-depth look at the immense contribution that sportsmen have made to conservation throughout history, and why participation in waterfowling and other forms of hunting is critical to the future of wildlife conservation.

Landmark Conservation Legislation

When the first Europeans arrived on the shores of North America, the continent harbored a seemingly limitless abundance of wildlife. As settlement rapidly expanded westward and more land was cleared and developed, however, fish and game populations suffered dramatic declines. Waterfowl were among the most exploited of the continent's wildlife. Almost everywhere that ducks, geese, and swans gathered in large numbers, they were gunned from early fall through late spring by commercial hunters to supply restaurants and markets in major cities.

The market hunters devised a variety of specialized equipment—such as punt guns, sink boxes, and gunning batteries—and used them with devastating effect. According to George Bird Grinnell, the influential publisher of Forest and Stream magazine, more than 15,000 canvasbacks were being taken each day by commercial hunters on Chesapeake Bay alone during the 1870s. This year-round hunting of waterfowl on their migration and wintering grounds, coupled with widespread wetland drainage across key breeding areas on the prairies and in the Great Lakes region, led to sharp declines of many waterfowl populations during the early 1900s.

American sportsmen were alarmed by dwindling numbers of waterfowl and other game. Led by visionaries like Grinnell, they organized and pressured their elected officials to bring an end to the commercial harvest of waterfowl and other wildlife. As a result, a series of landmark conservation laws were passed, helping to conserve waterfowl and their habitats to this day.

The first waterfowl hunting laws were passed by states. California established the first rest area for waterfowl in 1870, and Arkansas banned market hunting five years later. However, these laws were largely ineffective because of lax enforcement and corruption. Federal authority was clearly needed to effectively manage the harvest of waterfowl and other migratory birds, which cross state and international boundaries. In 1913, President Howard Taft signed the Weeks-McClean Act, placing migratory birds under federal protection. Waterfowl management was further strengthened in 1918 by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, based upon the treaty signed by the United States and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada). The legislation established federal bag limits for waterfowl, protected threatened species, and banned market hunting, spring shooting, and the use of shotguns larger than 10-gauge.

Paying the Bill for Wildlife

While harvest regulations helped many waterfowl species rebound, wetlands and other habitats continued to be lost at an alarming rate, and sportsmen realized that legislation providing funds for habitat conservation would be required to sustain waterfowl and other wildlife populations. In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and avid waterfowler Jay N. "Ding" Darling as chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey, the forerunner of the USFWS. Through skilled and tireless lobbying efforts, Darling and his allies successfully pushed the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Act through Congress that same year—a remarkable achievement during the Great Depression. This act included the initiation of the federal duck stamp program. To date, the sale of duck stamps—primarily to waterfowlers—has raised $675 million, which has directly purchased more than 5 million acres of wetlands as part of the national wildlife refuge system.

The next major legislation supporting wildlife conservation in the United States was the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, or Pittman-Robertson Act, of 1937. Sponsored by Congressman A. Willis Robertson of Virginia and Senator Key Pittman of Nevada, the act established an 11 percent manufacturers' excise tax on sporting rifles, shotguns, ammunition, and archery equipment, and a 10 percent tax on handguns. The shooting sports industry strongly supported this legislation, even at the risk of losing sales, at a time when most Americans had little money to spend on recreation. The USFWS distributes the tax revenues to state conservation departments, which partially match federal funds, largely with money raised from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. In this way, all gun buyers and participants in the shooting sports—even those who don't hunt—directly support wildlife habitat conservation.

How important are Pittman-Robertson funds to state wildlife agencies? A recent report by the Izaak Walton League found that 37 states rely on license sales and federal aid dollars paid by hunters and anglers to provide two-thirds or more of their wildlife agency's funding. Twenty of these states relied exclusively on sportsmen's dollars to fund their wildlife agency. Revenues from the program have been used to purchase, develop, and manage more than 4 million acres as state wildlife management areas; restore Canada goose, wood duck, turkey, beaver, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and moose populations; and to support hunter education and wildlife research.

The Role of Conservation Organizations

Despite the success of conservation efforts in the United States, little funding was available to conserve wetlands in Canada, where most of North America's waterfowl breed. In 1937, a small group of far-sighted waterfowlers, led by printing magnate Joseph A. Knapp, founded Ducks Unlimited to raise funds from American waterfowlers to restore wetlands on the drought-ravaged Canadian prairies. Throughout DU's 66-year history, the generous support of several million waterfowlers has enabled the organization to raise more than $1.6 billion, which has contributed to the conservation of nearly 11 million acres of prime wildlife habitat across North America. DU served as a model for several other conservation organizations founded by sportsmen during the past century, including the Ruffed Grouse Society in 1961, National Wild Turkey Federation in 1973, Pheasants Forever in 1982, and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in 1984.

In addition to conducting on-the-ground conservation work, Ducks Unlimited and its partners have sponsored several critical pieces of federal legislation that have conserved millions of additional acres of wetlands and other critical wildlife habitats. Among the most significant was the conservation title in the 2002 Farm Bill. Through cost-effective, incentive-based programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program, this six-year legislation helps farmers, ranchers, and other private landowners restore and protect wetlands and associated uplands on agricultural lands. Another critical piece of legislation reauthorized in 2002, with strong support from DU members and other sportsmen, is the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), which provides federal matching grants for wetland conservation projects in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. To date, NAWCA has helped fund nearly 1,000 wetland projects—totaling nearly 9 million acres of habitat—across North America. And, in 2003, DU and other sportsmen-funded organizations are working together to ensure continued federal protection for so-called "isolated wetlands," such as prairie potholes, playa lakes, vernal pools, and many other critical waterfowl habitats.

Private Lands

Waterfowlers and other hunters have not only made significant contributions to wildlife habitat conservation by supporting government programs and conservation organizations, but through private land management as well. According to the 2001 National Survey of Hunting, Fishing, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, sportsmen own nearly 118 million acres and lease an additional 225 million acres of land for hunting in the United States. By purchasing and leasing land, hunters have directly conserved millions of acres of critical habitat and have provided a strong economic incentive for other landowners, such as farmers and corporations, to manage their lands in a wildlife-friendly manner as well.

Waterfowlers have helped to save a large proportion of wetlands that remain in many regions, including the Great Lakes watershed, Atlantic Coast, Mississippi Delta, and Intermountain West. However, perhaps nowhere have waterfowlers made a greater contribution to conservation than in the Central Valley of California, where more than 60 percent of Pacific Flyway waterfowl winter. Nearly 95 percent of the region's original 4 million acres of wetlands have been lost, and roughly 70 percent of its remaining 300,000 acres of wetlands are privately owned, primarily by duck clubs.

Many sportsmen who own land for hunting go a step further to permanently protect the ecological value of their property by donating conservation easements to DU. Under these legal agreements, landowners donate the development rights on their property to DU; in exchange they get tax reductions—mainly against income and estate taxes—and peace of mind knowing that the resources and lifestyle they cherish will remain for future generations. DU has received conservation easements from private landowners protecting nearly 174,000 acres in the United States, including many of the continent's most valuable wetlands for waterfowl and other migratory birds.

The Future of Hunting & Conservation

Without alternative sources of revenue, sportsmen will continue to be the primary financial supporters of wildlife conservation in North America for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, an overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens continue to support hunting and angling as legitimate uses of the nation's fish and wildlife. A recent Gallup Poll found that 76 percent of Americans opposed banning all forms of hunting, and a similar survey conducted by Ducks Unlimited found that 67 percent approve of hunting.

During the past decade, generally high duck and goose populations and liberal harvest regulations have offered waterfowlers unprecedented hunting opportunities. In response, the number of active adult waterfowl hunters in the United States has increased from 1.2 million hunters during the 1991-1992 season to 1.6 million hunters during the 2000-2001 season. Today's waterfowlers also are enjoying more time in the field, are bagging more birds, and are spending more money in pursuit of their sport. Despite these promising trends in waterfowling, the overall number of hunters in the United States continues to gradually decline, and the average age of the hunting population is increasing as well. Recruiting new waterfowlers and other hunters, especially from among the nation's youth, will be critical to the future of our sporting tradition and wetlands and wildlife conservation.

Throughout its history, Ducks Unlimited has been among the strongest supporters of waterfowling and shooting sports in North America. DU consistently ranks among the top five private gun buyers in the United States, annually purchasing more than 15,000 firearms used as raffle and auction items to raise funds for its conservation programs. In addition, DU's three Great Outdoor Festivals celebrate all forms of hunting and angling, and introduce thousands of attendees, including many youngsters, to the shooting sports. DU also holds hundreds of clay target shoots and Greenwing events across the country each year, and is a member and supporter of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Becoming an Outdoors Woman program, and the International Hunter Education Program. Most recently, DU has joined a lawsuit defending hunting on national wildlife refuges, and has joined a coalition of conservation organizations, hunters' groups, and government agencies in endorsing the Hunting Heritage Accord. Clearly, hunting and conservation are inseparable, and DU will continue to do its part to ensure a bright future for waterfowling by efficiently conserving the habitats used by the birds upon which the tradition depends.