75th anniversary of Pittman-Robertson Act is a perfect time to celebrate hunters' role in conservation funding

DNR upland game bird specialist Al Stewart and 3 other men release turkeys into the wild.

August 16, 2012

In Michigan, money raised from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses pays for the bulk of fish and wildlife conservation - and the state's hunters and anglers are justifiably proud of their reputation for paying their own way.

But license fees aren't the only dollars that support conservation in Michigan. For decades, sportsmen have been paying into the pot in a manner that - although arguably a bit more obscure - is absolutely critical to successful long-term management of the state's fish and wildlife. DNR upland game bird specialist Al Stewart (center, green jacket) is joined by other DNR Wildlife staff and volunteers to release turkeys near Ionia, Michigan. (Image on the right.)

This year, Sunday, Sept. 2, marks the 75th anniversary of the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act (or, more simply, the P-R Act), and the start of a yearlong celebration for outdoors-minded organizations and individuals around the nation.

"During this landmark year, everyone can do one simple thing - thank hunters for funding 75 years of wildlife restoration," said Steve Beyer, research and management supervisor for the DNR's Wildlife Division. "Thank a hunter for helping support Michigan conservation efforts."

Thank a hunter, indeed.

Beyer said that, from 1939 through federal fiscal year 2012, Pittman-Robertson funds have provided the states and territories with $7.2 billion for wildlife conservation, restoration and hunter education. Michigan, which currently ranks fourth nationally in total P-R funding, has received $261 million since 1939.

(In 1950, the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act was enacted to do the same good things for fisheries conservation.)

DNR Wildlife research biologist Mark Boerson gets a closer look at a tagged bear.

Named after its sponsors Key Pittman (D-Nevada) and Absalom Robertson (D-Virginia), the P-R Act added an 11-percent excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition. The tax is built into the cost of the equipment and is paid by the manufacturers of arms and ammunition at the wholesale level.

The P-R Act has been amended a number of times over the past 75 years to expand funding sources. In 1970, a 10-percent tax was levied on pistols and revolvers, with the caveat that half could be used for hunter safety programs. In 1972, bows, arrows and their parts and accessories were added to the program at the 11-percent rate. In 1984, crossbows were also included in the mix.

Money raised by the P-R Act is allocated to states through a formula based on the total land area of the state and the number of licensed hunters in that state, Beyer said.

"The money is allocated to state conservation agencies," he explained. "In Michigan, the Department of Natural Resources is the recipient."

During the 2011 fiscal year, more than $371 million in excise tax was collected through the P-R Act. This money was apportioned out to states to spend during this current fiscal year. Michigan's portion for fiscal year 2012 is $12.3 million.

It isn't a blank check, by any means.

These dollars are made available to the DNR in the form of grants for specific projects. Grants are available on a 3-1 matching basis, meaning the DNR must come up with one dollar for every three received in P-R funds. For example, in order for the DNR to receive $750,000 in Pittman-Robertson funding for a $1 million project, it must first provide $250,000 in "match" funds.

"The most common source of matching funds is money collected from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses," Beyer said. Although states are allowed to use other non-federal funding sources to secure matching funds, the P-R Act requires that license fees be used for conservation projects and cannot be diverted for any other use, he said.

DNR Wildlife staff take measurements and collects data as part of the DNR's predator prey study.

"This is the key provision of the act, which ensures that states have matching funds on hand in order to be able to take advantage of available federal grants," Beyer said.

Federal grants are only available for approved projects, which include land acquisition, research, acquisition and maintenance of public shooting ranges, ecological surveys, reintroduction of wildlife species, hunter education programs and habitat improvement. Over the years, the DNR has used P-R funds for all of these purposes.

One specific example: the restoration of Michigan's wild turkey population. Wild turkeys, native to Michigan, had completely disappeared from the state around the turn of the last century due to a combination of unregulated hunting and habitat loss.

With the help of $2 million in P-R funds and $1 million in restricted turkey funds (mostly from state hunting license dollars), the turkey population was rehabilitated to what it is today - a robust, sustainable and huntable population found across most of the state.

P-R funds have also directly benefited access to prime hunting areas. The majority of Michigan's Managed Waterfowl Hunt Areas were purchased with P-R dollars, matched with money from the sale of "duck stamps" (waterfowl hunting licenses). Recently, partner organizations, particularly Ducks Unlimited, have been providing funds as well.

Hunters, however, are not the only beneficiaries of P-R funds. P-R funds can be used for projects that restore and conserve any bird or mammal species, not just game species. Consequently, these funds have contributed to the restoration of some non-game species (such as bald eagles) and to preserve wild lands that not only benefit wildlife, but can be used and enjoyed by outdoor enthusiasts, like mushroom hunters, berry pickers, hikers, birders and others.

"The long and short of it is that P-R funds, along with license fees, have been and continue to be how we fund most wildlife management in Michigan and across the U.S.," said Russ Mason, chief of the DNR's Wildlife Division. "Without P-R funds along with the prevention of diverting license fees to other uses required to get them, conservation in North America would simply collapse.

"Not decline. Disappear," Mason said. "So we celebrate and support P-R funds in every way that we can."

As with other funding sources, P-R funds are dependent on the marketplace.

Following 2009, for example, after record gun and ammunition sales, Michigan received more than $16 million in P-R funds in 2010. "When firearms and ammunition sales decline, however, the pot of money shrinks," Mason noted. In 2011, Michigan's portion shrank to $12.8 million and, in 2012, dropped to $12.3 million.

DNR wildlife technician Katie Keen, right, conducts bear den research with other DNR staff.

Similarly, because license sales are part of the equation, Michigan may not always get as large a cut from the federal pot as it does now. If license sales continue to decline in Michigan - or in comparison to other states - the state could lose out on available federal funding in two ways:

  • Fewer licensed hunters equals a reduction in what the state is eligible to receive; and

  • Fewer dollars collected from license sales equals a reduction in available matching funds for federal grants.


In that light, the contribution of Michigan hunters to conservation is two-fold: By purchasing guns and ammunition, bows and arrows, they increase the pot of federal funding available. By purchasing their hunting licenses, they ensure a portion of that federal funding comes right back to their home state.

No matter how you slice up the Pittman-Robertson pie, it is clear that the contribution made by sportsmen to conservation efforts in Michigan is truly exponential, and has been for the past 75 years.

For that, we should all thank a hunter.