Revamping conservation legislation | TSLN.com

Revamping conservation legislation

Last February, a House Natural Resources panel looked at a number of public land and wildlife conservation bills, including the Recovering America's Wildlife Act (H.R. 4647). The bill would amend parts of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, known as the Pittman-Robertson Act.

Enacted in 1937, the Pittman-Robertson Act allocates federal excise taxes from ammunition, bow, arrow, and firearm purchases to fund state wildlife conservation programs. Through this mechanism, hunters and recreational shooters have provided more than $15 billion in funding for state-based wildlife restoration and management.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said that this year more than $1.1 billion will be distributed to state wildlife agencies from taxes generated by the Pittman-Robertson Act, along with the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act.

The two acts apply excise taxes on manufacturers of guns, ammunition, archery equipment, and fishing equipment, which are then put into conservation efforts. The system is credited with restoring a variety of wildlife species and conserving millions of acres of habitat. But with a slow decline in hunting, these funds could be in trouble, and there are new efforts to recruit and retain new hunters and shooters, in the hopes to keep the funding programs healthy.

H.R. 4647 is one bill that is supposed to counteract these spiraling hunting trends. The latest National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, compiled every five years since 1955, found that the ranks of active hunters fell by some 8 percent, from 12.5 million in 2006 to 11.4 million in 2016. Total expenditures by hunters also fell some 29 percent from 2011 to 2016, from $36.3 billion to $25.6 billion.

The Association for Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) organized a two-day fly-in, last March, hoping to persuade congressional delegates to support the Act. Caroline Murphy, government relations program coordinator at The Wildlife Society, participated in the event.

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The measure, sponsored by Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus members Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, (R-NE), and Debbie Dingell, (D-MI), would amend the Pittman-Robertson Act and place $1.3 billion annually from funding gained through on- and offshore oil and gas and geothermal development on federal lands into a new subaccount to go toward states' wildlife conservation and restoration initiatives.

According to AFWA, the money would support species that states have identified as species of greatest conservation need to help prevent them from becoming federally threatened or endangered in the future.

The Act is supported by 21 Democrats and 13 Republicans. Since it was introduced, last December, its co-sponsor count has risen to 38.

"That money is like, in my mind, a trust," Fortenberry told lobbyists, staffers, lawmakers and others during the fly-in. "We're using some of our resources, but then let's creatively take it and plow it back into the regeneration of those same resources."

Groups such as The Wildlife Society submitted testimony in support for H.R. 4647, but the mixed message comes in the agenda or plans for the funds if the act were to pass.

Another bill, H.R. 2591, introduced by Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) also has hit a cord with groups such as The Wildlife Society. H.R. 2591 proposes multiple amendments to Pittman-Robertson Act, in part to modify its purpose to include financial and technical support for state hunter and recreational shooter recruitment.

The bill proposes changes including allowing up to 25 percent of the funds to be used for hunter and recreational shooting recruitment, including the construction and maintenance of shooting ranges. Up to $5 million would be used to establish a program for national hunter and shooter recruitment efforts.

In their testimony, The Wildlife Society expressed appreciation for the need for increased hunter and recreational shooter recruitment. However, TWS also expressed concern that the proposed changes could result in necessary funds – up to $160 million based on FY2017 allocations – being pulled away from wildlife restoration to recruitment efforts.

"Redirecting Section 4(b) funds could lead to a broad reduction in science-based wildlife management and research capacity for state wildlife agencies and erode the underlying focus of those agencies—from maintaining their public trust responsibilities to the recruitment of a single constituency," TWS writes in the testimony.

At the hearing, Bob Ziehmer, the director of conservation for Bass Pro Shops, provided oral testimony in support of both H.R. 2591 and H.R. 4647, claiming they are necessary steps to secure continued funding for wildlife management.

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) also expressed concern over the changes to the Pittman-Robertson Act proposed by H.R. 2591.

"While I understand the rationale for this change, these are goals that could detract from wildlife conservation efforts," she said, echoing TWS' concerns.

American Fisheries Society's Montana Chapter has pushed for the passage of 4647 for a number of reasons. According to the group, the value to Montana alone is $29 million, and would only require a 25 percent non-federal match that could be achieved via in contributions, private donations, or from the state's general fund.

"Given the recent cuts to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) budget of over $1 million, the funding provided by RAWA would help MFWP maintain and expand its current fish and wildlife management and conservation efforts," the group wrote in a press release.

A few programs and issues that RAWA funding could support include:

• Providing continued boat inspection and decontamination to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species such as zebra or quagga mussels,

• Providing support to research on emerging threats to Montana's fishery including proliferative kidney disease, which shut down the Yellowstone River during the summer of 2016,

• Funding to support projects that identify core seasonal and migratory habitat for species of greatest conservation need and funds to secure those habitats,

• Working with private landowners to implement voluntary conservation and management actions without requiring public access, and

• Creating and implementing wildlife conservation education programs and projects, including public outreach intended to foster natural resource stewardship similar to the highly successful Montana WILD nature center and educational programs for children and the public.

• Passage of RAWA would dedicate annual funding to the federal Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program, using existing revenue from the development of energy and mineral resources on federal lands and waters.

H.R. 4647 still needs to clear the House Natural Resources Committee before it can come before the full House. Efforts are underway to put forward a companion bill in the Senate.

Another hunting related bill, H.R. 788, which has 61 co-sponsors from 34 states including seven Democrats, was reported out of the Committee on Natural Resources on a voice vote at the end of May, making it eligible for a floor vote by the full House.

The proposal would use money already made available to the federal government through Pittman-Robertson, to up the number of public shooting ranges and boost the numbers of hunters in the field.

"Increasing urbanization and suburbanization has made it more difficult for the public to participate in hunting and recreational shooting than when PRWRA was first enacted in 1937," said the Committee report on H.R. 788. "One of the primary reasons for the decline in the number of hunters and recreational shooters is the growing lack of access to quality shooting and target ranges."

Under the current guidelines, states must match federal government funding 25 cents on the dollar to begin working on such shooting ranges. The proposed bill would drop this formula to 90/10 while also allowing funds to accrue for up to five years to help fund purchase of land for shooting ranges and construction.