In order to save wildlife, healthy habitats need hunters
Wildlife are in trouble. There are more than 150 animal species on the Threatened and Endangered Species List in Illinois, and many more on the federal Threatened and Endangered Species List. What they need is more hunters.
"Wait a minute!" I hear readers saying. "You don't protect animals by hunting them!" If this non-sequitur puzzles you, consider this: hunters and anglers contribute more than a billion dollars annually toward wildlife conservation. Not just big game, but butterflies, too.
Hunting is a loaded word, conjuring the image of bison carcasses strewn across the prairie, left to rot in the sun. Sadly, unscrupulous people saw the abundance of wildlife in the 19th century United States and considered it theirs for the taking - and, often, wasting.
But the hunting of our great-grandfathers is not the hunting of today. The sky is no longer the limit when it comes to bagging birds, and selling wild game for profit is verboten.
The American Model of Conservation, born from a series of landmark legislation in the early 20th century, is the foundation of a different ethic. In this model, stewardship goes hand-in-hand with hunting. It involves the conservation of wildlife communities, not just select species. A white-tailed deer is a deer in the context of its connection to oak trees and red-headed woodpeckers and coyotes. A smallmouth bass is a bass in relation to healthy streams with abundant insects and crayfish. Healthy habitat for one is healthy habitat for all.
Hunters and anglers play a leading role in protecting and restoring habitat. Support comes from hunters' pocketbooks each time they buy a license or purchase a firearm, thanks to The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937. This legislation instituted an excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition, and the revenue is used exclusively for wildlife conservation. Additionally, the Act requires that license fees collected by states must be used solely for fish and game management. In 2018, this translated to $1.1 billion.
The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934, launched the Federal Duck Stamp Program. It has been hailed as one of "the most successful conservation tools ever created to protect habitat for birds and other wildlife," according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website. "Nearly all of the purchase price - 98 percent, by law - goes directly to help protect wetlands and associated habitats through fee acquisition, lease and conservation easements. The habitat acquired with Federal Duck Stamp dollars becomes part of the National Wildlife Refuge System."
This revenue is augmented by millions of dollars raised by conservation groups such as the Izaak Walton League, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, and the National Wild Turkey Foundation. Ducks Unlimited, for example, raised more than $220 million in 2018, of which 80 percent was applied to conservation. And Pheasants Forever reported that $96.4 million went directly to upland habitat conservation and education in 2018.
Here's the rub: There has been a steady decline in hunters over the past decades. This means shrinking funds for habitat restoration, and new generations spending less time in the natural world.
Tom Stewart, a lifelong hunter and angler in Elgin, was headed north for a week of ice-fishing when I chatted with him about the issue.
"Over 50 years of adventures into the wild, I've seen a steady decline in hunting," Stewart said.
He noted the importance of building the next generation of conservationists. Over the years, Stewart has mentored dozens of youth in fishing and hunting programs through the Izaak Walton League and the Boy Scouts of America.
Mentoring new hunters is also an objective of the Illinois Learn to Hunt Program, sponsored by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Natural History Survey.
Dan Stephens, the program's director, said, "Hunting is a substantial funding source for conservation, management and protection of our natural resources. The Illinois Learn to Hunt program was developed to bolster hunter numbers." And that bolsters wildlife, too.
Without healthy habitat, wildlife suffers. Without hunters, support for habitat conservation dwindles. Wildlife needs habitat, and hunters support habitat.
Hunting is not for everyone, but hunters and non-hunters alike can contribute to conservation. As 2019 draws to a close, consider purchasing a Federal Duck Stamp. If you're not a hunter, you can put the stamp on your fridge. If you are a hunter, put it on your hunting license. What a great way to bring good tidings to all - deer, ducks, plants and people.