By Lisa Irby
In 1937, Ducks Unlimited's founders launched the organization's conservation efforts on behalf of North America's wetlands and waterfowl. That same year, the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Sponsored by Congressman A. Willis Robertson of Virginia and Senator Key Pittman of Nevada, the act established a manufacturers' excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition to generate much-needed revenue for wildlife conservation. The funds generated by this legislation, which is commonly known today as the Pittman-Robertson Act in honor of its congressional sponsors, are collected by the federal government and then distributed to the states.
"State fish and wildlife agencies across the nation enthusiastically celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act while recognizing the tremendous value of this user-pay, user-benefit program to wildlife conservation," says Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. "Moreover, with much gratitude for the support from the hunting and shooting sports industry, this anniversary reminds us of how much this collective effort has done to restore America's wildlife resources. Because of this wildly successful program, which is among a long list of conservation victories, we can appreciate abundant populations of waterfowl, wild turkeys, elk, pronghorns, white-tailed deer, and many other game and nongame species."
How the Program Works
The Pittman-Robertson Act delivers significant funding to state wildlife conservation programs each year. However, in order for states to be able to access any of this federal funding, they must guarantee that license fees paid by hunters will be used only for the administration of state fish and game departments. Thus, in addition to directly providing funds for wildlife conservation and habitat restoration, the act helps ensure that license fees paid by hunters are not diverted by states for other uses.
Pittman-Robertson Act revenue is deposited in the Wildlife Restoration Trust Fund. Additional revenue is raised from similar taxes on fishing equipment (established by the Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950) and on boating fuel (levied by the 1984 Wallop-Breaux Amendment). Funds from these sources are then distributed to state fish and wildlife agencies by the secretary of the Interior via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. States typically must provide an investment of one dollar for every three dollars in federal funding that is granted. In most cases, state hunting and fishing license fees are used to meet this matching requirement. This funding mechanism brings together a broad range of constituencies, from industry and sportsmen to government agencies and nonprofit organizations such as Ducks Unlimited. Together all of these groups help support the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.
On average, more than 80 percent of the funding for the annual budgets of state fish and wildlife agencies is derived from hunting and fishing license fees and Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson dollars. Without these revenues, most states would be unable to maintain programs that sustain healthy populations of fish and wildlife. They would also be unable to meet public demand for outdoor recreation or support hunter education and shooting programs.
Since the inception of the Pittman-Robertson Act, more than $14 billion has passed through the Wildlife Restoration Trust Fund. Because the dollar amounts are so large and their allocation to the states does not happen immediately, the Pittman-Robertson Act allows the secretary of the Treasury to invest a portion of the fund's revenue that is not needed by the states in any given year in interest-bearing U.S. treasuries. An amendment to the Pittman-Robertson Act allowed the interest earned by these investments to be allocated to the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA). These revenues, which help support wetlands and waterfowl conservation projects across North America, have averaged nearly $11 million per year since 2004. With strong support from Ducks Unlimited, state agencies, and legislative partners, this amendment was recently reauthorized through most of 2025.
How the Program Supports DU's Work
Both Pittman-Robertson Act revenues, which are allocated directly to the states, and interest from the Wildlife Restoration Trust Fund, which is allocated to NAWCA, provide significant support for DU's mission. In fact, Ducks Unlimited is an active partner in this collaborative effort and is often seen by state fish and wildlife agencies as the partner of choice for the delivery of wetland restoration projects supported by these funds. For example, DU recently worked with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other partners to secure funding through the Pittman-Robertson Act and NAWCA for a wetland enhancement project on Broad River Waterfowl Management Area (WMA) near Blair. DU partnered with the South Carolina DNR, the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture, and the Wildlife Restoration Program to leverage funding from the state, the SCANA Corporation, DU Major Sponsors, and South Carolina DU license plate sales to access $100,000 in Pittman-Robertson Act funds and to secure a $75,000 NAWCA small grant. This funding was used by DU and its partners to improve water-management capabilities and create optimal habitat conditions for waterfowl and other wildlife on this WMA, which provides public access for a variety of outdoor recreation, including duck hunting.
"The South Carolina DNR is extremely grateful for the many partners who have joined us to support wetland conservation and enhancement efforts on our wildlife management areas," says Emily Cope, deputy director of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division of the South Carolina DNR. "Being able to leverage Pittman-Robertson Act dollars with so many diverse funding sources truly shows the wealth of interest in the public outdoor recreational activities that we provide, and we look forward to continuing this tradition for many years to come."
In the Central Flyway, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission recently used Pittman-Robertson Act funds to purchase the 1,225-acre Hastings tract from DU's revolving land program. The property, located at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers along the Nebraska−South Dakota border, will be managed by the state for public access and hunting. Its river-bottom wetlands provide excellent foraging and resting habitat for migrating ducks and geese.
These are only a couple of examples of how Pittman-Robertson Act funds support DU's mission and other important conservation work across the United States. Everyone who hunts, fishes, or pursues other forms of outdoor recreation owes a debt of gratitude to Senator Pittman, Congressman Robertson, President Roosevelt, and the many other conservation pioneers who made the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act law. The billions of dollars that hunters and anglers have contributed to conservation through this partnership have indeed made a difference for the nation's fish and wildlife, and these funds, which are freely paid each year by sportsmen and women, remain a cornerstone of fish and wildlife agency funding in many states.
Here's to the next 80 years of the Pittman-Robertson Act!
Lisa Irby is director of conservation operations at DU national headquarters in Memphis.