June 11, 2020
By Andrew McKean
Over the past few months you may have heard more from your state fish-and-wildlife agency than you expect, due to a large degree to COVID-19.
But maybe you're also receiving emails or Instagram posts reminding you that a new license year is approaching. Or maybe it's a text message alerting you to a public meeting in your area to discuss hunting regulations.
After decades of considering your participation a given, fish-and-wildlife agencies are borrowing a page from business and starting to treat you like a customer. State agencies are increasingly aware that fishing and hunting are choices, ones that compete with plenty of other pushes and pulls on your time and money.
As part of this business mindset, agencies have joined the customer-acquisition and -retention game, and they're using modern techniques to reach you. Interestingly, they're using an old funding strategy to pay for this outreach.
Lost in the wilderness of congressional lawmaking last year was the passage of a bill called America’s Conservation Enhancement Act, which has the cute acronym of ACE. The package included a bunch of goodies for conservation, one of which is a provision called the Pittman-Robertson Modernization Act that allows state agencies to use excise taxes to recruit and educate the next generation of hunters and outdoors folk. That’s the source of the funds that agencies are using to stay in touch with you like never before, as well as to recruit new license-buyers and to reconnect with lapsed hunters.
Agencies' new way of looking at their customers, both repeat and first-time, is a pretty big change from the traditional relationship between natural resource managers and America’s hunters and anglers. And it's definitely a new way of looking at the "user-pay" model of funding that fuels agencies’ budgets.
State fish-and-game departments historically have been funded through two channels. The first is license fees. The second is federal excise taxes that have been collected since the Pittman-Robertson (P-R) account was created in 1937.
You might not know that you pay a federal tax on every shotgun, rifle, pistol, box of ammunition, bow and arrow you buy. That tax, either 10 or 11 percent of the wholesale price, is collected by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which distributes 75 percent of the funds to state agencies based on geographical size and number of licenses sold in each state. States are required to match the remaining 25 percent with license fees.
Those P-R funds add up. Since 1937, sportsmen have paid more than $12 billion in excise taxes. They have fueled wildlife restoration that has given us huntable populations of elk, turkeys, deer and other game animals, plus conserved habitat for countless other species.
But times have changed. Wildlife restoration is largely complete, and the engine of funding—license-buyers—is declining as hunters age and as a new generation of Americans loses connections with rural landscapes and traditions. At the same time, state agencies are tasked with more than simply managing huntable wildlife populations. They are responsible for non-game species and for providing recreational and public-access opportunities for a growing population.
Agencies are at a tipping point. Without additional future hunters to fund wildlife management, our tradition of science-based, public oversight of public wildlife is in jeopardy. It's worth noting that hikers, birdwatchers and other "customers" of state wildlife agencies don’t pay in proportion to their use. Attempts to assess a "backpack tax" on recreational gear have routinely been rejected by the outdoor-gear industry.
The idea behind the P-R Modernization Act is to give states the leeway to use federal excise tax revenue not only to manage wildlife, but to bring more hunters into the fold and to use modern, science-based techniques to do it.
Some states are using slick advertising campaigns to educate non-hunters about all the public benefits that fish-and-game agencies (and license-buying hunters) provide. Other states are using techniques developed by distance-learning professionals to deliver hunter education courses in new ways to non-traditional students. Others are turning to social media to get in touch with customers.
Will these outreach efforts succeed in recruiting a new generation of license- and gear-buying customers? It had better. Our tradition of managing wildlife by the public for the public is at stake.