Conservation Funding Has Changed; What does this mean for Sportsmen?

By Guest Panelist Travis Thompson – Cast and Blast Florida

“Hunters are conservationists.” At some point, almost all of us have uttered those words in a conversation about why hunting is necessary, how we pay for conservation, or to illustrate the restoration of turkeys, wood ducks, whitetails, elk, and countless other species.

Throughout conservation history, sportsmen and women have, time and again, carried our weight. Then some: from usage fees like licenses and stamps to Federal excise taxes on the gear in the form of Pittman Robertson or Dingell Johnson, we have been at the forefront of conservation funding. Even within the parameters of our precious North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, it’s inferred that financial contributions are a central component of what keeps consumptive use on the landscape; however, there are also precursors to times ahead and shifts in that funding model, and the implications that could arise.

Times are a-changing!

At the time of this writing, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is approaching a landing spot with Congress . . . This bill, funded by extraction receipts, will follow the Pittman Robertson model and allocate funds from the US Fish and Wildlife Service back to states, following some formula for ensuring reasonable distribution. Some say RAWA is “keep common species common” and seems a noble goal in funding management of many wildlife species not often thought of by those of us looking at wildlife through the lenses of consumptive or utilitarian use.

This model follows up on the recent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This hugely admired action uses offshore drilling as a funding mechanism for conservation projects . . . I’ve been told on many occasions that “there’s not a county in the United States that hasn’t benefitted from an LWCF project.”

Both of these approaches move away from a consumptive user fee. Unlike the billion dollars raised since the duck stamps’ inception, this model leans more into conservation for conservation’s sake, a noble ideal.

In my home state of Florida, we have additional funding streams for landscape-level conservation: In 2021, our state legislature authorized $435 million for the Florida Wildlife Corridor, an incredible and ambitious project aimed at creating a “green infrastructure” across our state. In 2022, $100 million was allocated to Florida Forever and $300 million to the Rural and Family Lands program, both funded to continue the momentum towards our wildlife corridor.

Florida funds our wildlife agency not only through license sales and excise taxes but also through document (doc) stamps on home sales and gas taxes.

All of these are incredible programs and creative ideas. But, it does obviate the question: “Where do sportsmen fit in?”

In the proposed 2022 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) Commission budget, the Division of Hunting and Game Management (HGM) was slated to have a budget of 7.5 million dollars. That’s out of a proposed agency budget of $431.2 million. Or, said differently, roughly 1.7% of our state’s wildlife budget is allocated directly to HGM.

In the future, this percentage will be decreased even further by adding RAWA funds (Florida is likely to receive $45 million). And this in no way reflects the overall percentage of conservation dollars within our state when juxtaposed with the additional $400 million in funding given to the land as mentioned earlier protection program.

This leaves us, as hunters, caught in a difficult position.

The conservationist side of our hearts should love and cheer these programs on; more land protected means more wild places. Recovering America’s Wildlife and LWCF can greatly relieve the efforts sportsmen have put forth for the last century in carrying the burden of conservation funding.

But, it also creates discord in the model that often keeps sportsmen viably on the landscape.

Recently, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) and the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) began rolling out the framework of the Relevancy Roadmap.

This concept, while not prescriptive, endorses the idea of maintaining a level of relevancy for wildlife agencies as we see a shift in stakeholder belief from utilitarian use to mutualism. Yet sportsmen, even in my state, are still held to the user fee model that is the base for conservation funding.

Here we sit.

Hunters’ existence on the landscape is tied to two ideals: that we are a primary contributor to conservation dollars. That model is fast changing and, as illustrated above, is obsolete in my state. We will continue to see this movement away from user fee funding as wildlife agencies begin to embrace social sciences further and adopt mutualistic views.

The second idea is that we are a viable management tool. Hunters pay a fee to the state, and the state, in turn, uses sportsmen to manage bears or deer populations. While this concept holds in some cases, we no longer hold this view in the Sunshine State, and, as the guinea pig in this experiment, we should be carefully watching our wildlife agencies and governance.

Florida has over 4,000 bears inside our borders. The black bear has been an ESA success story and should be celebrated. However, this animal is now managed politically instead of through science; while our state wildlife plan allows for hunting to be part of the management plan, our politicians and culture have shifted far from Florida many of us grew up in, and hunting is viewed as a “nice to have” vs. something that we have a right to practice, or even as something that has value beyond self-sustaining revenue.

It’s this tipping point that leaves us in a precarious position. How do we ensure our relevance moving forward? How do we protect our ability to spend time afield with our friends and family? And, how do we do these things in the face of a further diminishment of our needs and contributions, with no political leverage in sight?

We’ll continue to advocate for all manner of conservation, self-serving and otherwise. But we also must have our heads on a swivel, constantly aware of inches lost, having voices and bodies in meetings across the state as we continue to fight for our place in the ever-growing conservation movement.

Travis Thompsonwww.castandblastfl.comInstagram: @travisthompsonTwitter: @travisthompson