By W. Laird Hamberlin
Americans are rightly focused on the threat that COVID-19 poses to humans. We are all thankful for the first responders and health care workers who are on the front lines of this crisis, and we mourn the senseless loss of human life. We are all cheering on the scientists and researchers who are working feverishly to develop and test possible treatments and a vaccine, while the rest of us remain at home and practice social distancing to limit the spread of the pandemic.
But the coronavirus poses another threat – to our nation’s wildlife. The threat does not rest in direct transmission of the virus to animals, but in an economic chain reaction that could deny the states billions of dollars in vital funding for the conservation of wildlife and habitat.
That loss of funding would then filter directly down to our nation’s wildlife populations, threatening the success of the robust, science-based conservation infrastructure that is now administered by state wildlife management agencies.
Last year alone, the federal government collected nearly one billion dollars of excise taxes paid on guns, ammunition, and related products. Those taxes were established in 1937 with the passage of the Pittman-Robertson Act, at the urging of hunters and conservationists.
The taxes are then annually redistributed to the states via the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration program, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The program uses a formula to apportion the grants among the states, and states must match 25% of the federal grant funds in order to collect the grant.
The funds are then deployed by state scientists and biologists who monitor, research and manage wildlife populations. In normal times, the program works smoothly and the taxes paid by hunters are deployed directly back into the field to support the conservation of more than 500 different species of game and non-game species alike.
But these are not normal times. The pandemic is blowing enormous holes in state budgets, which will ripple through state agencies for years to come. The sale of hunting licenses, which provides the majority of states’ matching funds, will likely fall precipitously in the widespread economic hardship that has already begun to spread nationwide.
And some states are exacerbating the problem already by canceling non-resident access to upcoming hunting seasons. Non-resident hunting licenses typically sell for a premium well above resident licenses, so the resulting loss of funding will be even sharper.
The bottom line is that states will be hard-pressed to come up with the 25% matching funds needed to be eligible for the federal grant funding. $976 million dollars currently sits in the coffers of the federal grant program, awaiting disbursement by the FWS. But if states can’t come up with the matching funds, they will receive nothing.
It is bitterly ironic that even while gun sales are surging and excise taxes are pouring into the federal coffers, states may be denied access to the critical conservation funding upon which our nation’s wildlife populations rely.
But there is a solution for the unprecedented crisis in which we find ourselves. Congress should work to give the FWS the flexibility to eliminate the match requirement until state fish and wildlife agencies can get back on their feet.
And if that can’t get done in a timely fashion amidst the many relief bills Congress will consider in weeks and months to come, the FWS should simply use the 2019 numbers supplied by the states to determine the 2020 grant allocations. These are verified numbers that were used one year ago for the same purpose, and they represent the only available data set that won’t be horribly mangled by the looming economic impact of COVID-19.
Just as Congress moved quickly to address the economic impact of the coronavirus, we urge the House and Senate to move quickly to adopt this workaround. Now is the worst possible time to allow much-needed state funding to get tangled up by an arbitrary cutoff percentage that will worsen the unprecedented crisis we face today.
W. Laird Hamberlin is the CEO of Safari Club International