Wildlife watchers watch for free
According to the results of the recently released 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, more people than ever (age 16 and older) participated in wildlife recreation. Hunter numbers (13.7 million) grew 9 percent from 2006 to 2011. The number of anglers (33.1 million) increased 11 percent during the same time period. And the number of wildlife watchers (71.8 million) held steady from 2006 to 2011, while increasing 9 percent over the last 10 years.
Even more significant is the economic impact these pastimes make. Hunters spent $34 billion on equipment, licenses, trips, and other related expenses in 2011. Anglers spent $41.8 billion on fishing-related activities. And watchers, the largest group, spent $55 billion feeding, watching, and photographing wildlife. That's a $131 billion economy directly attributable to wildlife recreation.
The 2011 survey is the 12th in a series of surveys, conducted every five years since 1955. The purpose of these surveys is to collect information about Americans who hunt, fish, and watch wildlife. Information is collected by the U.S. Census Bureau based on interviews with 48, 627 households.
Though the survey focuses on people aged 16 and older, it does collect some information on children. Those results indicate that in 2011, 1.8 million kids ages 6 to 15 hunted, 8.5 million fished, and 11.7 million watched wildlife.
One of the more interesting findings of the survey is that while hunters and anglers pay their way, watchers do not. Hunters, for example, spend more than $986 million on licenses, federal duck stamps, and various other state-authorized hunting stamps. Anglers spend more than $600 million on licenses and stamps.
Plus, hunters and anglers pay a federal excise tax on their equipment. In 1937, the Federal Aid to Wildlife Restoration Act placed a federal excise tax (11 percent) on sporting arms and ammunition, with the proceeds distributed to the states (based on a formula that considers both number of hunting licenses and land area) for wildlife research and restoration. In 1950, the Federal Aid in Fish Restoration Act established a federal excise tax on sport fishing equipment (10 percent), with the proceeds reapportioned to the state for fisheries projects.
Watchers, on the other hand, are not required to buy a license to enjoy wildlife. Nor do they pay a federal excise tax on the equipment they use.
Watchers enjoy wildlife thanks to sportsmen and women. The notion that watchers should pay their fair share for wildlife conservation is not new. It's been around since the passage of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1980. The biggest obstacle to an excise tax on watcher's equipment is resistance from manufacturers of those products. They resist anything that increases the price of their products.
Unlike farsighted hunters and anglers in the first half of the 20th century who demanded they be taxed to fund wildlife conservation for the future, watchers have been content to enjoy the free ride provided by sportsmen.
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1980 encourages states "to develop conservation plans for non-game fish and wildlife of ecological, educational, aesthetic, cultural, recreational, economic or scientific value." Unfortunately, the Act has never been funded at the federal level.
One obvious way to provide additional federal funding for wildlife conservation would be to impose a federal excise tax on bird food, feeders, optics, cameras, and other products watchers use. In 2011, watchers spent $11.3 billion on wildlife watching equipment (food, feeders, nest boxes, baths, optics, camera equipment, etc.). A federal excise tax of just 5 percent would generate $565 million annually. Even a 1 percent excise tax would raise more than $100 million. That would make watchers, hunters, and anglers equals in the world of wildlife conservation.
Alternatively, a voluntary, collectable, $10 annual federal wildlife watching stamp, sold at wildlife refuges, state parks, nature centers, and wild bird stores, might be a small step in the right direction. At least it would give watchers an opportunity to support wildlife conservation. And I can't imagine any watcher objecting to that.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, West Virginia 26033 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.