December 2016
From Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

Entitlement Programs in Wildlife Management, Really?

The amount of time our department wastes each year dealing with wildlife welfare cases is absurd.

If I had to guess, the majority of hunters and fishermen in our state tend to lean toward the conservative side of things. I feel like they believe in the right to keep and bear arms, and hard work gets you to where you want to be in life. I also believe they would be appalled at the amount of time and resources our department expends every year on Wildlife Welfare cases.

 

Most outdoor enthusiasts understand the role hunters play in the hands-on portion of the management of wildlife on their property, hunting lease or wildlife management area. Unfortunately, many do not understand the role they play in funding statewide wildlife management. As y’all are aware, I’m much better at explaining wildlife management topics than policy or political topics, but I’m going to do my best to explain the role hunters play in funding statewide wildlife management. Please stay with me on this because it’s critical you fully understand. I’ll try to be brief, but I’m going to have to go all the way back to the late 1930s.

Try to put yourself in that time period. It is nearing the end of the Great Depression, people have very little money and wildlife numbers are at historic lows due to market and subsistence hunting. It was during such an atmosphere that a group of gun and ammunition manufacturers went to Washington to ask legislators to enact an excise tax on their goods and place the money into an account to fund state wildlife agencies. You understand, businessmen went to Capitol Hill to request a tax be placed on them in a time when money was extremely tight. Why would they do this? Because they were savvy businessmen, that’s why. They understood the simple fact that, with proper funding, state wildlife agencies could do their jobs to make sure wildlife would be managed correctly. With wildlife to hunt, these manufacturers understood that people would need guns and ammunition. It was a brilliant business move to protect their industry and, more importantly, played a pivotal role in conservation of the wildlife of our country.

The Pittman/Robertson Act was enacted in 1937 to provide a constant source of funding for state wildlife agencies. Every time you buy a gun, box of ammo, treestand or other various hunting accessories, you are helping to fund wildlife management. According to the 2011 National Survey, Alabama hunters rank seventh in the nation on hunting-related expenditures. So, a really good pot of money is set aside in Washington for wildlife management in Alabama. I wish it was easy to get that money, but it isn’t. That money is allocated to each state based on two criteria: land mass of the state and the number of hunting licenses sold. Because we can’t do anything about the size of the state, we have to depend on the sale of hunting licenses to obtain our share of those Pittman/Robertson funds.

Unlike many states, Alabama has quite a few exemptions allowing certain people to hunt without buying a hunting license. Residents who hunt on their own property, residents over 64 and all kids under 16 do not have to purchase a license. Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries is solely dependent on the sale of hunting license and Pittman/Robertson dollars to provide services for Alabama hunters and receives no money from the state General Fund. Could these exemptions be considered a type of entitlement program? We are asking license-buying hunters to pay for services to a group who does not pay. What else would you call it?

Let me explain why I wanted to write about this topic this month. Repeatedly, week after week, year after year, additional groups ask DCNR and WFF to grant them exemptions from purchasing hunting and fishing licenses. Additional exemptions could quickly lead to a funding crisis. Should our license-buying hunters be asked to bear that burden? For example, we have another group of hunters, organized field trial participants, who feel they should not have to pay to hunt in our state. We have been bombarded the past several weeks by an extremely vocal portion of this user group. Field trial exemptions were granted by our department decades ago for a select few who wanted to participate in bird dog (quail) field trials on private property and then grade hunting dogs on their performance. Originally, there were less than a half-dozen of these trials statewide, and none were on state-owned property. These events had hundreds of participants who rode horses and watched the dogs. Although no game was killed, they were still classified as hunters and a field trial permit allowed these hunters (resident and nonresident) to participate in the activity without having to purchase a license.

Fast forward to last year when over 100 field trial permits were given to groups pursuing quail, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, coyote and fox, and I’d bet many more were held without the proper permits. Many of these events even took place on several WMAs.

As with most entitlement programs, there are always those who try to beat the system and eventually cause a problem for the program. What was designed as a very limited program taking place on private land has now turned into a welfare program impacting resources on our state WMAs. The vast majority of these properties were bought and paid for by license-buying hunters. Due to growing permit requests, costing Alabama and its hunters thousands in lost license revenue and even more in the 3-1 matching Pittman/Robertson funds, and, due to the negative impacts on our state hunters and resources, we decided to limit the number of field trial permits per club to three per year on private land. They can still have field trials on WMAs with one simple stipulation: Buy a license. That seems pretty simple to me. But, good gracious what we have gone through for making that decision.

The amount of time our department has had to devote to this issue should infuriate every licensed hunter in Alabama. One would think we had completely outlawed the practice of field trials when nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of issuing unlimited permits, allowing residents and nonresidents to participate without purchasing a license (with many taking place on public land), we will now issue three per club. For additional field trials and those taking place on public land, participants will now need to purchase the appropriate hunting license. Let me remind you how much a hunting license would cost the resident participants: $17.45 for an annual small game license. Non-residents have a choice: $98.65 for an annual small game license, $60.25 for a 10-day small game trip license or $43.75 for a three-day small-game trip license.

In the grand scheme of things in the field trial world, is that really too much to ask? Why should deer and turkey hunters pick up the bill for these folks? I can’t really think of a reason. Can you?

 

 

Chuck Sykes is director of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.