For decades, hunters and anglers in Alabama have paid for nearly all of the state’s wildlife and conservation programs through hunting and fishing licence fees and excise taxes on their equipment. As a result, deer and wild turkey, once very rare in Alabama are now abundant. The state’s lakes have become a mecca for sport fishing.
Furthermore, we brought back the bald eagle and established the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center, the largest non-game recovery program for mussels and snails in the nation.
Despite nearly a century of progress, there is genuine concern by conservationists, from hunters to bird-watchers, that the Alabama Department of Conservation’s reliance on hunting and fishing revenue is unsustainable and needs to be updated for the 21st Century.
Hunting and Fishing Trending downward
No one disputes the trends. More often than not, we are seeing children spend more time on their smartphones than in the woods or on a lake. Organized sports consume more and more family time and money.
Nationally, hunting and fishing are declining. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the number of hunters in the United States has decreased by 2.2 million people in the past five years. The number of anglers has dropped approximately 7 million from a peak in 2007.
Additionally, sales of hunting and fishing equipment are dropping.
It’s double trouble.
Less hunters and anglers means less licenses sales and subsequently less equipment sales. In some states revenue to run wildlife and fisheries department are tanking.
“Everything is down, hunting and fishing. In Alabama, we are kind of stable, its down 2 or 3 percent, then up 2 or 3 percent. It is not the drastic decline that some states are experiencing,” stated Chuck Sykes, Director of Alabama’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division.
New hunters wanted – growing the base
To combat the national trend, Sykes and his division have launched a new aggressive mentoring program for hunters.
“We have decided to put our effort into an adult mentoring hunting program. There is a big movement to eat cage-free and farm fresh. Well, hunters and anglers have been doing that for decades before it was fashionable to do.
There is a large audience out there that didn’t grow up hunting and fishing like we did. They come from urban and suburban areas. It’s kind of intimidating when you get in your 20s, 30s and 40s to ask somebody to teach you how to do something, especially when it comes to hunting. Last year, was our first effort at it and it was very successful.”
Shift in funding, more participants needed
Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Natural Resources recognizes the changing conservation funding landscape.
“The industry is changing. We are seeing a lot more people who are enjoying birding and non-consumptive activities. In the future, we need to find a way to somehow shift some of the responsibilities for funding conservation,” said Blakenship.
And it is not just state government leaders that are sounding the alarm for the need to shift some of the conservation funding burden to additional partners.
“We are acutely aware of the challenges that resource agencies are facing; not just in Alabama but across the country. As these challenges to funding our resource agencies arise, The Nature Conservancy will lean forward with our conservation partners and the people of Alabama to come up with new ideas that will enable the state to continue its proud tradition of protecting Alabama’s wild places,” added The Nature Conservancy of Alabama’s director Roger Mangham.
So how do we go beyond just hunters and anglers supporting wildlife conservation? Here are some initiatives all conservationists in Alabama should consider supporting:
Two conservation funding programs that need to grow
If you are not a hunter of angler, two ways you can directly support wildlife conservation in Alabama is through the Wildlife Heritage License and Nongame Wildlife Tax Checkoff.
The Wildlife Heritage License was developed during the Siegelman Administration as an alternative to hunting and fishing licenses. The idea: enlist non-hunters to voluntarily purchase an annual license to support non-game wildlife activities. They constructed the program to enable the license fees to receive the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson 3 to 1 federal match, by providing Heritage license holders privileges to hunt on state Wildlife Management Areas and fish at state lakes.
In Fiscal Year 2016, 3,464 Alabamians purchased a Wildlife Heritage License raising $33,774, with little effort. This is a program just waiting for a champion.
Similarly, non-hunters have for years directly supported wildlife conservation efforts by contributing to the Alabama Non-Game Wildlife Tax Check-off, which is found on your state income tax forms. Once a successful revenue generator, the Nongame Wildlife Check-off revenues have decreased because additional causes ranging from children’s foster care to disabled veterans have crowded it out on the tax forms.
Recently, the Alabama legislature passed legislation to help reduce the number of the tax check-off participants. As a result, with a little help and advocacy, revenue from the Nongame Wildlife Tax Check-off now has room to grow. In Fiscal Year 2016, 970 taxpayers donated a portion of their refund to Alabama’s Nongame Wildlife programs totaling $12,470.
Forever Wild is vital to stabilizing funding
The importance of Alabama’s Forever Wild program was best expressed by Commissioner Blankenship.
“We don’t want to have a shortage of Wildlife Management areas, hiking areas, Forever Wild areas.”
Without public lands you can’t increase the number of anglers, hikers, hunters and bird-watchers, which means you can’t stabilize revenue.
The hunting community is also depending on a strong Forever Wild Program.
“We are adding more properties to our Special Opportunity Areas system, where we can foster more mentor hunts,” stated Chuck Sykes.
“Special Opportunity Areas are different than traditional Wildlife Management Areas that are 15,000 to 50,000 acre properties, where you just open the gates and let people have at it. SOAs are places they (Forever Wild) have strategically purchased. We break them into 300 to 500 acre units. You apply, just like out West for an opportunity to hunt there. If you get selected, you and a friend can hunt there, it is all yours. We are using SOA for the mentor program. So we are teaching people to hunt not on private land but on public land.”
Along with public hunting areas, Forever Wild has expanded Alabama’s network of nature preserves, canoe and hiking trails and bird-watching areas. Since its re-authorization in 2012, numerous pieces of legislation has been introduced to gut the program. Forever Wild needs defenders
Congress is seeking solutions
The U.S. Congress is also recognizing the need to broaden support for wildlife conservation funding. Recently, in the House of Representatives, Republican Jeff Fortenberry and Democrat Debbie Dingell, introduced legislation called Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. The bi-partisan legislation is supported by groups such as the National Wildlife Federation.
Every little bit helps
During our recent interview with Commissioner Blankenship, he told a story about his 18 year old daughter completing her first tax return from her first job this past April. She had a $3 refund. He told us, she checked the Nongame Wildlife Checkoff box and donated her entire refund.
He said, “Every little bit helps.”
From the hunting and fishing licenses to a checkoff on your state tax return, together we all can protect and preserve our state’s natural heritage.
Beyond hunting and fishing licenses things you can do? Here is our checklist.
Join groups such as the Alabama Wildlife Federation
Purchase an Alabama Wildlife Heritage License for $10.85.
Support the Nongame Wildlife tax return check-off
Support Forever Wild with your vote
Support legislation in Congress that funds wildlife conservation