LEWISTON – Hunters don’t like it. Nor does the firearms industry.
But 58 Republican members of Congress have proposed gutting the popular Pittman-Robertson Act, a cornerstone of wildlife conservation in the United States. All in the name of gun rights.
The legislation introduced this month by Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., would eliminate federal excise taxes on the sale of firearms, ammunition and archery equipment. Last year the tax raised a record $1.1 billion that was distributed to state fish and wildlife agencies across the country. Idaho and Washington each took in about $21 million. Since its inception in 1937, Pittman-Robertson, formally known as the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, has raised more than $15 billion.
Hunters lobbied for it more than 85 years ago. They wanted a self-imposed tax that would help recover species like elk, white-tail deer, wild turkeys, ducks and geese. It has and continues to fund recovery and management efforts on a wide range of game and nongame species. Hunters then and now are proud of it and opposed to any efforts to reduce its effectiveness.
“We were really taken aback by the audacity of this bill,” said Brian Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation. “Pittman-Robertson is an 85-year success story. It’s the backbone of American conservation.
“I think you would be hard pressed to find a hunter who isn’t proud of the fact they pay for wildlife conservation.”
Stan Wilson, of the Asotin County Sportsman Association, said the bill would eliminate a reliable source of conservation funding.
“I see it as a loss for sportsmen and a loss for wildlife,” he said.
Dan Wilson, secretary of the Washington Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said not only does PR, as it is often called, play a critical conservation role, it also gives hunters a seat at the table. That can matter in a state like Washington, where a tiny fraction of residents hunt, some citizens are targeting traditional hunting seasons and the Fish and Wildlife Commission is rewriting game management and conservation policies.
“We want a holistic, healthy ecosystem. That is why we are so ready and eager to put our money where our mouth is,” Wilson said. “We think we deserve a spot in the conservation conversation about how that money gets spent, not just because we want to see healthy, sustainable wildlife populations, but because we believe in healthy ecosystems and we fund them.”
Clyde’s bill would ditch the tax and replace conservation funding by collecting as much as $800 million annually from federal oil and gas royalties for distribution to the states. Idaho Congressman Russ Fulcher counts himself as an original co-sponsor of the legislation, named the Return Our Constitutional Rights Act. He, Clyde and the other 56 sponsors say the Pittman-Robertson Act, because it taxes firearms and ammo, infringes on the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms.
“By eliminating this punitive tax on gun owners and securing a new funding source for programs important to sportsmen and conservationists, we seek to affirm not only the 2nd Amendment but our duty to be responsible stewards of our resources,” Fulcher said in a statement provided to the Tribune.
Even the gun industry, which has to cut large checks under Pittman-Robertson, is opposed to the idea Fulcher and Clyde are pushing, said Mark Oliva, spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. He called the RETURN Act a “terribly misguided piece of legislation.” Earlier this year, he wrote a piece extolling the accomplishments of Pittman-Robertson.
“This legislation needs to die on the vine. It is not something the industry supports. We gladly pay that tax,” he said. “We are proud to pay this investment in wildlife conservation.”
He noted about 75% of ammo and gun sales these days aren’t associated with hunting. But Pittman-Robertson also helps fund public shooting ranges and hunter education classes where many people learn the basics of gun safety even if they never hunt.
“That benefits recreational target shooting,” Oliva said. “If we provide more areas for people to shoot recreationally, it will generate more money to go back to conservation.”
Ryan Busse, a former executive at Kimber Arms and industry insider turned critic, blames the foundation and the NRA for fanning the national debate over guns. He said the legislation is the logical outcome of their zealotry on guns and pitching the Second Amendment as absolute.
“It’s a byproduct of them blowing up the political debate to such a hot temperature that now you have 58 House members saying, ‘OK, I will take you at your word.’ ”
He said the industry donated to or endorsed most if not all the co-sponsors and is skeptical of the steadfastness of their opposition.
“I see what happens when they are seriously against something,” Busse said. “They work to unelect people and they are not going to unelect any of these people.”
Hunting groups anticipated the move and last month wrote a letter to key members of Congress to lobby for Pittman-Robertson. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, received a copy because of his status as ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. Through a spokesperson, Crapo declined to comment on the letter or the House bill.
The act also has helped state wildlife agencies in another way. In order to receive funding, Pittman-Robertson requires the agencies to retain the revenue they generate from the sale of hunting licenses and use it to manage wildlife.
Virgil Moore, retired director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and past president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, said without Pittman-Robertson there wouldn’t be the high level of professional wildlife management the nation enjoys today. Funding from the act and the Dingle-Johnson Act that places a similar excise tax on fishing equipment allowed states to hire professional, college-educated biologists.
“The fishing, the hunting and the conservation that has resulted from Pittman-Robertson and Dingle-Johnson funds is off the charts,” Moore said. “It’s probably the most successful federal-state partnership program in existence. Any thought of messing around with it, without bringing all the people involved with it together, is not very sound thinking in regards to the conservation and wildlife needs of this nation.”