Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hunting, Fishing & Wildlife Watching

Montana pack train (c) John Ashley
A pack train hauls hunting gear into the Bob Marshall Wilderness last week
It's opening weekend for general rifle hunting season across almost all of Montana's wild public lands. Bird watchers and Rambos alike will don orange vests for the rest of fall, lest they be mistaken for an elk. Or a deer, a horse, a cow, a llama.

Unfortunately, it happens.

Aside from national parks, virtually all of Montana's wild lands are managed in favor of hunters. And most of our lakes and rivers are stocked with non-native fish species, put there to appease anglers.

And Montana's wildlife watchers? Well, it would be nice to not get shot at while hiking. The majority of us are definitely not against hunting in the traditional sense, but as the U.S. population ages, it's the non-lethal wildlife watchers who must become our modern conservation leaders.

So who are these three user groups in modern times? The most recent government census on recreation (from 2011) sheds some light on who we are, and why we face a growing dilemma.

In 2011, more than 90 million adult Americans participated in wildlife-related recreation. They spent a combined $144.7 billion dollars - that's billion with a B. But these dollars don't always line up in straight rows, and paying for wildlife management is a growing problem.

That year, the average big game hunter spent $1,457 on his sport. Did the average hunter bring home $1,457 worth of wild meat to to feed his or her family? Modern hunters are moving away from our "tradition," and only 46% of hunters nationwide say they hunt to put venison on the table. We have shifted from meat to trophies (the distinction is clearly spelled out here).

Still, in spite of hunting's steady shift from food to fun, and in spite of how willing trophy hunters are to spend lots of money, the number of people participating in hunting is in a long-term and steady decline. And the fall of hunting has a major impact on the funding of wildlife management.

Wild land managers are being forced to come to terms with the fact that there are almost twice as many wildlife watchers (71.8 million) as hunters (13.7 million) and fishermen (33.1 million) combined. Nation-wide in 2011, wildlife watchers outnumbered fishermen by 1.5:1, and they outnumbered hunters by more than 5:1. Here in Montana, wildlife watchers outnumbered fishermen by 2:1, and they outnumbered hunters by 2.7:1.

Yet hunters still receive preferential treatment from state game agencies because money talks. Half as many hunters and anglers spent almost as much money in 2011 as twice as many cheapskate wildlife watchers. Hunters dropped $41 billion, fishermen $49 billion, and wildlife watchers $55 billion, nation-wide.

Apparently, bird watchers love their shiny Swarovski spotting scopes as much as hunters love their walnut-stock Winchester Model 70's. And people really love their long arms here in Montana. Even though they're vastly outnumbered, hunters in our state spent $524 million on their hobby, while anglers spent $488 million. Montana's wildlife watchers only put out a measly $226 million, getting outspent by a margin of more than 2:1.

This disparity in spending is the crux of our management problem. Hunters and anglers pay an 11% excise fee on their equipment, money that funds our state wildlife agencies. There is no comparable fee on bird seed, binoculars or guide books.

Who will pay for wildlife management going forward? One estimate has hunters declining by -25% over the next 15 years. Between 2001 and 2011, the documented number of anglers decreased by -5% while the number of wildlife watchers increased by +9%.

Various measures to "tax" wildlife watching gear through equipment excise fees have been floated in Congress during 2000, 2008 and 2009. None passed, even though they were popular among all three wildlife user groups- especially the birding community. No, these solutions failed only because of the "no new taxes" political environment, in complete disregard of their merit and widespread support.

Almost single-handedly, hunters footed the bill for wildlife management through the 20th century. After a century of unregulated over-hunting, they changed course and participated in the recovery of many decimated wildlife populations, including most of the so-called "non-game" species now enjoyed by wildlife watchers.

Today, a majority of wildlife watchers would be willing to pick up the tab in the 21st century. Voluntary donations aren't cutting it, and we must contribute more in some sustainable way or our numbers will eventually crush the ability of state wildlife agencies to function.

Unfortunately, common sense looks like a big fat llama to half of this Congress.

Fair Chase Ethics from Orion Hunter's Institute
Great history of U.S. hunting and a plea for "ethical literacy" among hunters.
History of state non-game wildlife funding
National census on wildlife-related recreation (large PDF)
Montana census on wildlife-related recreation (large PDF)