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Why Increasing Anglers is Crucial for Conservation Funding

I have been "sitting on" this one for a while. But my mind is a torrent, there are rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.

In fact, I no longer remember where this idea came to me but as best I remember, a friend posted something on social media about how we do not need anymore anglers. Rather selfish, I thought and it reminded me of rather contentious MeatEater article that Matt Rinella wrote, "The Case Against Hunter Recruitment" and the aftermath of that post (more on that later). He writes about R3 programs - recruitment, retention, and reactivation - by state and federal agencies to increase hunter numbers (including Wisconsin). It applies to anglers as well. If you have not read the article, you should. I'll wait. In fact I am re-reading it myself.


The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation


It is, in a word, unique - it provides more opportunities for more people - not just the rich as is the history of many countries. But it comes at some costs. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is basically the idea that fish and wildlife are a non-commercial public resource and that they should be managed to be sustainable over time. That wildlife is for everyone does not seem all that novel of an idea but historically, wildlife and its ownership was much different. Wildlife in many countries is owned by the landowners which means only those of means have access to hunting and fishing. Because wildlife is viewed as a public, non-commercial resource in North America, it means that funding for wildlife conservation comes from the public.

• Wildlife as Public Trust Resources: Natural resources and wildlife on public lands are managed by government agencies to ensure that current and future generations always have wildlife and wild places to enjoy.
• Prohibition on Commerce of Dead Wildlife: Commercial hunting and the sale of wildlife is prohibited to ensure the sustainability of wildlife populations. The Lacey Act, which the Service has a role in enforcing, prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold.
• Rule of Law: Laws and regulations developed by the people and enforced by state and federal agencies will guide the proper use of wildlife resources.
• Opportunity for All: Every citizen has an opportunity, under the law, to hunt and fish in the United States and Canada. This differs from many other countries.
• Wildlife Should Only be Killed for a Legitimate Purpose: Individuals may legally kill certain wild animals under strict guidelines for food and fur, self-defense, and property protection. Laws prohibit the casual killing of wildlife merely for antlers, horns or feathers or the wanton waste of game meat.
• Wildlife as an International Resource: Because wildlife and fish freely migrate across boundaries between states, provinces, and countries, they are considered an international resource.
• Scientific Management of Wildlife: The best science available will be used as a base for informed decision-making in wildlife management. It’s important to note that management objectives are developed to support the species, not individual animals.

A Bit About Funding of Fish and Wildlife Programs


I am fairly confident that everyone reading this buys or has bought fishing and/or hunting licenses and knows about that licenses fund state resource agencies. Fewer probably know that we all pay an excise tax built into the price of sporting goods - the Dingell-Johnson or Federal Aid is Sport Fish Restoration and Pittman-Robertson or the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 both provide state resource agencies with funding based on the state's physical size, population, and the number of licenses that they sell.

Federal Aid in Fish Restoration sign
You have seen these signs at your local fisheries, public hunting and fishing grounds, boat launches, etc.

In total, there are around a billion dollars of excise taxes collected and distributed to the states a year. In 2020, Wisconsin received over $29 million - nearly $12 million in sport fish restoration funds and nearly $18 million in wildlife funds (source). Top put that in context, deer licenses pay for a lot of the WDNR's budget - in FY2019--2020, deer licenses sales totaled a little more than $12.5 million (source). Since their budgets are largely determined by how many licenses are sold, nearly every state has an R3 program.


Are R3 Programs Self-Serving?


Yeah, certainly a bit. After all, selling more licenses is basically a budget double-dip. Resource agencies get funds from the license sale as well as increasing their share of sport fish and wildlife restoration funds. A feature of the North American model is that hunters and anglers largely pay for land and water conservation programs - for better or worse. It gives these groups an outsized voice in how we manage land and water resources, again, I would say for better or worse. The self-serving nature of these R3 programs makes a lot of sense.

Funding for land and water conservation and management is limited and the expenses are high and like everything else, getting more expensive. Politics being what they are, getting an increase in license and stamp fees is really difficult. Unfortunately many of the same people that do not think much about paying hundreds of dollars to go to Packers, Bucks, or Badgers games grouse at a minimal increases in license or stamp costs. Or at least they are not letting their representatives know that they want more funding to go to conservation. According to a 2019 Paul Smith article, the base cost of hunting and fishing licenses have not changed since 2005. There is this little thing called inflation you might have heard about recently...your $10 trout stamp should be nearly $16.50 if the cost merely kept up with inflation. I have fairly strong thoughts on this topic.

In short, the same amount of money is brought in and costs are increasing. Yes, the excise taxes that come back to states somewhat reflect this but for the most part, fish and wildlife agencies are running incredibly lean. COVID has has some positive impacts on resource agency budgets but those impacts are waning as many of those new hunters and anglers are getting back to pre-pandemic activities. Sure, there are other funding mechanisms - such as dedicated sales taxes such as in Missouri and Minnesota. This means that a much greater proportion of the public is paying for fish and wildlife management. It also means that state legislatures have to propose a tax increase. I am not holding my breath that will happen anytime soon in Wisconsin.


Arguments Against R3 Programs


These are, I think, pretty simple - "Why do I want to share a limited resource with more people?". It is a Tragedy of the Commons which I previously wrote about. Matt Rinella wrote in the article, "The Case Against Hunter Recruitment":

I’m an outdoorsman who craves solitude, yet my hunting spots get more crowded every year. That, in a nutshell, is why I’m leery of R3.

Is this selfish? Of course it is! I mean there really is no way - with a straight face - you can call it anything other than selfish. Do I necessarily blame him for thinking that? Not really. To be sure, mostly catch and release trout angling in streams with high density trout populations - my trout fishing world - is a world different from hunting. In particular, they are mostly talking about big game - elk, mule deer, sheep, and such - out west. And they are largely coming at it from a trophy hunter's perspective. I understand their feelings - even if it is a quite selfish attitude.

Human dimensions research routinely shows that user conflict is the most significant source of user dissatisfaction for outdoor pursuits. More simply, you getting in my way pisses me off and makes me unhappy. As an angler, it is generally pretty easy for me to avoid conflict by not fishing near other cars here in Wisconsin but harder in some parts of the state and certainly in other states it is nearly impossible. Want to have a quiet day on a Wisconsin stream, that's pretty likely. Want that on New Mexico's San Juan River, Spring Creek at Fisherman's Paradise in Pennsylvania, a Catskill stream, or any number of increasingly popular western streams - well, you are probably not going to get it.


Why We Should Want More Anglers


Yes, you read that right. I think we should want more anglers buying licenses. Part of it are the budget issues but it is also about having more people that care about our natural resources. Our resources are being threatened all the time, from many different directions, and we can always use more people that care about the environment and trout streams because most people do not. Ask folks in the Department of Natural Resources, the people that always call in fish kills are anglers. More eyes on our streams is a good thing.

CRTU meeting
PJ Smith presenting at a Coulee Region TU meeting.

Anglers are not getting any younger. Just go to a Trout Unlimited meeting and you will quickly recognize that. I have been a TU member for nearly 30 years and I'm still "the young guy" - that is a problem.

Anglers are aging. And as troubling is that fewer young people are being introduced to fishing. Research shows that most people that fish (and buy fishing licenses), started when they were young. While there is a lot of "dropping in and out" of angling, there is good evidence to suggest that relatively few people become anglers without an earlier experience. We are seeing the declines even faster on the hunting side of things. I am one of those that have "dropped out" largely due to not having the time to participate.

Coon Valley Trout Fest
Coulee Region Trout Unlimited helping out with Trout Fest in Coon Valley - about 150 youth participate each year.

While I totally understand the selfish reasons why others do not want more hunters and anglers, I think it is quite shortsighted. For better or worse, much of the environmental funding comes from hunters and anglers. Stream improvements, which reduce phosphorous and other pollutants from entering our waterways are funded largely through trout stamps. Boat launches and other access points are largely funded through excise taxes on our equipment. And the salaries of those protecting and maintaining these public lands are largely funded through hunter and angler licenses, fees, and excise taxes. I would love to see a broader base of support for our shared natural resources but without that, it is up to us and we need more of us.

STREAM Girls event
STREAM Girls event at the West Fork Sports Club - hosted by CRTU.

For Trout Unlimited chapters, some of the best things we can do are youth events that expose people to fishing. Many of us learned about and how to hunt and/or fish through our families. Not everyone has that luxury. We need to help make it easier for families to go fishing. Early exposure to fishing increases the likelihood that someone becomes an angler later in life. And being an angler means we have more people that care about our environment and streams at a time when many in society simply do not care. It's a long play but one well worth the effort.


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