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Funding a System of Conservation - B&C Impact Series

Members of the Boone and Crockett Club were key players in laying the groundwork for both conservation of game species and generating the funds to pay for it—a system that we still use today. 

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There used to be quite a bit of money in duck meat and plumage from wading birds. At the turn of the twentieth century, an enterprising killer could turn a pile of feathers or breast meat into a bag of cash. In fact, giant shotguns—called punt guns—were mounted to boats so shooters could blast hundreds of birds at a time. The meat would supply restaurants with cheap table fare, while the feathers were used to adorn the hats of fashionable ladies. The supply of birds over North American’s skies seemed endless. It wasn’t. 

Early members of the Boone and Crockett Club worked to put an end to the wholesale slaughter of birds by pushing legislation like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, which established federal control over the hunting of those birds. For bird populations, Club members had stopped the bleeding. Yet without a way to replace the birds that had been lost, it was unlikely populations would recover on their own. It would take more than laws. Restoration was going to take money. 

The Duck Stamp 

Two members of the Boone and Crockett Club, U.S. Senator Frederic C. Walcott from Connecticut and J.N. “Ding” Darling, director of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, the forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would establish a way to pay for waterfowl restoration, and it would be hunters supplying those funds. 

Senator Walcott was a founder of the American Game Protective and Propagation Association, and in 1930 the group’s first project was to reverse the destruction of waterfowl populations and their habitat. At the same time, there was a three-member committee called More Game Birds in America (now Ducks Unlimited). Tom Beck served as the president and the other two members were none other than Ding Darling and Aldo Leopold. The association and the committee had similar goals in that they both proposed some sort of hunting stamp. Beck’s committee, though, pushed for a one-cent tax on shotgun shells as well. The tax on equipment to fund conservation proved ahead of its time. “At a hearing held by the committee on April 4, 1932, in which more than one hundred witnesses testified, the tax proposal was dropped on the grounds that upland-game hunters should not be taxed to benefit waterfowl,” writes James B. Trefethen in An American Crusade for Wildlife.

The American Game Protective Association favored the sale of a one-dollar federal stamp, which waterfowers would need to purchase prior to hunting. The proceeds from the stamp would be set aside for the purchase, development and management of wildlife refuges. The bill was introduced in the Senate by Walcott and the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act became law on March 16, 1934. 

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The best friend a duck ever had, J.N. "Ding" Darling was a conservationist and political cartoonist who designed the first Duck Stamp. 

Darling, a political cartoonist, ardent conservationist and quite possibly the best friend a duck ever had, designed the first Duck Stamp and was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to head the Bureau of Biological Survey. While at the helm, Darling cracked down on poachers shooting ducks out of season on the Missouri River by deploying a “phantom squad” of deputized local sportsmen and law-enforcement officers. In addition, he helped set the stage for the programs that fund our wildlife conservation today. 

Pittman-Robertson 

Establishing the Duck Stamp was a solid start to funding conservation, but it wasn’t enough—and Darling knew that. In an effort to hire actual biologists trained in wildlife biology, Darling worked with Aldo Leopold to establish a training program in fish and wildlife management at Iowa State College in Ames. The schools gained traction, and Darling took his idea for a national program to Washington D.C. There, he managed to raise interest and money, but he came up around $80,000 short of his goal. 

In the spring of 1934, Darling hosted a dinner in New York City with heads of industry. Thanks to encouragement by Remington Arms Company president C.K. Davis, duPont Company and Hercules Powder Company agreed to help Darling. From that dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria sprouted a number of wins, including the creation of the Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit Program, the American Wildlife Institute (today it’s the Wildlife Management Institute ) and the National Wildlife Federation.  

In the ensuing three years after that dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, wildlife conservation and research was getting organized—and funded. In 1934, the U.S. Congress created the Select Committee on the Conservation of Wildlife, whose purpose was to monitor and study the country’s federal conservation agencies like the U.S. Biological Survey. Nevada Senator Key Pittman served as the Senate chair and A. Willis Robertson of Virginia served as the House chair. It’s important to note that in 1937, excise taxes on firearms and ammunition had already been restored earlier by Congress to fund programs of the New Deal. Those funds, though, were not earmarked for conservation and wildlife restoration efforts. Pittman and Robertson introduced identical bills in the Senate and the House, which earmarked the excise taxes on sporting arms and ammunition to be used by the states to acquire habitat and to restore and research wildlife populations.

And here is another key point. “One of the most farsighted features was an eligibility requirement that each state pass an enabling act that prohibited the diversion of hunting-license revenues for any purpose other than the administration of its fish and wildlife agency,” notes Trefethen. As a result, when the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (P-R Act) became law on September 2, 1937, 43 of the 48 states passed enabling acts in the first year, and all states soon became eligible. 

“This ended the practice, common in many states, of raiding the fish and wildlife agency funds for constructing schools, building roads, and similar activities unrelated to wildlife conservation,” writes Trefethen. “In the first year, the excise tax brought in $2,976,019. With this financial backing and with new authority, the federal and state conservation agencies began the most aggressive and constructive wildlife-restoration program ever known.”

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Pittman (left) and Robertson (right) introduced identical bills in the Senate and the House, which earmarked the excise taxes on sporting arms and ammunition to be used by the states to acquire habitat and to restore and research wildlife populations. Since 1937, the Pittman-Robertson Act has generated at least $13 billion for wildlife restoration and projects.

The timing of the P-R Act was impeccable. After servicemen returned home from World War II, there was renewed interest in hunting and fishing, and a subsequent boom in hunting and fishing license sales as well as sporting goods. In the first 10 years of P-R programs between 1938 and 1948, 38 states acquired nearly 900,000 acres of refuges and wildlife management areas. 

Thirteen years after passing the P-R Act, a similar act, the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act (D-J), placed a tax on fishing gear—the money from which goes to fund fisheries management, research, and restoration efforts. 

Funding the 21st Century 

As the U.S. experienced a cultural shift in the 1960s, conservation would see changes, too. More people were getting outside, and they weren’t just hunting and fishing. They were camping, rafting, mountain climbing—and they were doing so en masse. 

Today, hunters, anglers and shooters continue to “pay to play” through P-R, D-J and hunting and fishing licenses. Other user groups that presumably appreciate wild animals and the wild places they call home—the bird watchers, hikers, bikers, climbers—haven’t been as keen to invest in wildlife resources. In the 1990s, an initiative called Teaming With Wildlife would have placed a five percent (or less) tax on items like camping and hiking gear and even birdseed. In Congressional testimony, groups such as the American Recreation Coalition opposed the measure. The initiative never gained much traction, but that doesn’t mean the idea died altogether. 

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Courtesy Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Later in the 1990s, wildlife enthusiasts joined forces yet again in a massive effort to pass the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), which would have generated $45 billion for conservation for at least 15 years. This legislative effort was led by John Dingell and Boone and Crockett Club member and Alaska Congressman Don Young. CARA passed the House 315-102 but died in the Senate, even though it was approved by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Fear not, though, there is hope on the horizon. 

Is it worth all the effort, resources, and energy? Before you answer, take a minute and think about life without fishing, hunting big game, or early mornings in the marsh with a good retriever by your side. That life without was almost a reality. Now think about how much was saved thanks in large part to a postage stamp and a handful of concerned sportsmen.

In 2014, Boone and Crockett Club member and Bass Pro Shops owner Johnny Morris and former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal co-chaired the Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources. The panel included representatives of industry (Toyota, Shell Americas), conservation groups (Duck Unlimited, National Audubon Society), and state agencies. Among other things, their goal was to come up with a way to fund the conservation of at-risk non-game species and their habitat.

Based on the panel’s recommendations, lawmakers introduced the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2021 (RAWA), which provides $1.3 billion in dedicated funding annually (for 5 years) for the implementation of state fish and wildlife agencies’ wildlife action plans. This will provide greater regulatory certainty for industry and private partners by conserving species and avoiding the need to list them under the Endangered Species Act. The good news is that RAWA passed committees in both the House and the Senate in 2022. It has bi-partisan support, with 175 co-sponsors. For its part, the Boone and Crockett Club has engaged the House and Senate leadership efforts to help advance RAWA. 
 
Passing legislation to help care for our nation’s wildlife resources has never been easy. A century ago lawmakers passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and there have been plenty of achievements since. Is it worth all the effort, resources, and energy? Before you answer, take a minute and think about life without fishing, hunting big game, or early mornings in the marsh with a good retriever by your side. That life without was almost a reality. Now think about how much was saved thanks in large part to a postage stamp and a handful of concerned sportsmen. Boone and Crockett members like J.N. “Ding” Darling and Frederic C. Walcott pioneered the “user play, user pay” wildlife funding mechanism that we still use today. Without those funds dedicated to wildlife restoration and conservation, there would be little wildlife to fund.


About the Impact Series

The Impact Series is dedicated to showing how sportsmen, members of the Boone and Crockett Club in particular, saved the wildlife and wild places of the United States. Early members of the Boone and Crockett Club comprised the movers, shakers, and initiators of the American conservation movement. They were hunters, anglers, explorers, lawmakers, soldiers, and above all conservationists. These members established laws that allowed our wildlife resources to flourish. They also protected landscape-scale geologic marvels and American icons like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Denali, and many, many more. These members may no longer be with us, but their legacy remains. This series aims to honor their accomplishments and remind us of the good work still yet to do.

 

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Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937

Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act

$1 Billion
(that’s billion with a ‘b’) 


 

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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt