A hunter returns home with a deer carcass on the wing of his car, circa 1940. The 1937 Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, named for Nevada Senator Key Pittman, finances roughly half the budget of the Nevada Department of Wildlife. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Nevada’s wildlife may belong to the public, but hunters and gun enthusiasts almost exclusively pay the tab for managing the state’s vast array of species. Taxpayers contribute only about two percent of the Department of Wildlife’s budget via the state’s general fund.
“There are states that get a lot more and there are states that get nothing,” says NDOW Director Tony Wasley of general fund support. “Blue states are more likely to contribute to conservation than red states.”
Just under half of NDOW’s budget, about $21 million, comes from the sale of state hunting and fishing permits. Some $23 million comes from the federal government via the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, named for Nevada Senator Key Pittman.
The Act imposed an excise tax on ammunition and firearms. Manufacturers pay 10 percent on handguns and 11 percent on long guns. A separate fund holds revenue from taxes on fishing gear.
Animal activists and some conservationists argue only a fraction of firearms and ammo are used for hunting. People who purchase firearms for protection or target practice, they say, are subsidizing efforts aimed at appeasing hunters.
But the Pittman-Robertson funds are tied to hunting licenses.
“If Nevada didn’t have license holders, we wouldn’t get the money,” Wasley says.
The federal money can’t be redirected by the state, says Wasley, but it doesn’t come without strings. States must match 25 percent of federal dollars and revenue from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses must be directed to fish and wildlife restoration.
“When you have laws that ensure your revenue never leaves your agency it makes it difficult to fulfill the expectations of people who provide the revenue,” he says. “That is in part what happens to state wildlife agencies. With a narrow funding model, many of the people who pay have an expectation that they should receive disproportionate benefits for paying a disproportionate share of costs. They grow resentful.”
“Even in our Legislature there are a couple of Republicans who are licensed buyers who believe they are protecting their dollars. ‘Where are my license dollars going?’” Wasley says they ask. “They dictate our budget.”
“We tried to spend some money on some Spanish language signage. They didn’t want a single dollar being spent on anything other than English language,” he says of the lawmakers.
Broad charge, narrow funding stream
The vast majority of Nevadans will never interact with NDOW.
“Roughly three percent of citizens recreationally pursue eight percent of the species,” says Wasley. “Ninety-two percent of the species in the state don’t generate any metric.”
That leaves the department “reliant on a disproportionate amount of funding from a disproportionately small percentage of citizens who pursue a small percentage of wildlife we manage.”
Some states, challenged by similar funding models, “tailor their workforce to the largest source of funding,” according to Wasley, leaving the non-hunted species “a challenge to fund.”
In Idaho, for instance, tag and license revenue may only be used to support hunted populations.
“The irony is, it’s the desire to pursue these animals that ultimately funds their conservation,” Wasley says. “This has been a national discussion since 25 years ago when I started my first job. It’s about finding that alternative source of funding. How do we fund conservation?”
That quarter of a century quest has taken different shapes, says Wasley, including a proposed excise tax on outdoor equipment, intended to level the playing field among hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts.
“There was a lot of pushback on that,” Wasley says.
A proposal likely to surface for the third time in Congress, the Recovery of America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA), would provide states with about $1.4 billion annually to manage America’s growing list of endangered and threatened species.
“The government determined it would take that to implement 75 percent of each state’s conservation plan, assuming the states could pay the other quarter,” Wasley says of RAWA, which has been introduced in the last three sessions by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan.
“It’s all about keeping common species common and avoiding the trainwrecks of listing as endangered,” Wasley says.
Nevada would receive about $28 million a year from RAWA.
Nevada’s Wildlife Action Plan, which is currently required by Congress for receiving federal funds, identifies 256 species in need of conservation.
The state has 42 species of plants and animals listed on the endangered list and another 341 designated as imperiled, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
Endangered wildlife would receive 15 percent of funding under the measure, while non-listed species would receive 85 percent.
“Worse, the legislation uses an antiquated funding formula that primarily relies on the size of a state rather than need,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity. “Alaska would receive nearly three times more money than Hawaii, despite the fact that Hawaii has 50 times more endangered species.”
A spokeswoman for the Nevada Conservation League said the organization “hasn’t engaged” regarding the bill and declined to discuss it on the record.
The measure enjoys bi-partisan support, including from Nevada lawmakers — Republican Rep. Mark Amodei and Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford were among 180 co-sponsors of the 2019 bill.
RAWA also has wide support among conservationists, including the National Wildlife Federation, which says it would “invest in proactive, on-the-ground efforts by states and tribes to recover at-risk wildlife…”
But critics of previous iterations say the measure’s identified funding source — royalties from oil and gas extraction — render it a non-starter.
“It would diversify NDOW’s funding streams, which is essential if we want NDOW’s organizational priorities to reflect the diverse interests of Nevadans,” says Patrick Donnelly, Nevada State Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. But the organization does not support RAWA.
Donnelly says making “state wildlife agencies dependent on extractive industries creates perverse societal incentives to continue unsustainable extraction. It effectively makes fossil fuel extraction a precondition for wildlife conservation.”
A 2019 report from the United Nations estimates one million species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction globally.
But the legislation does not address plant conservation, “which represents more than half of all species listed under the Endangered Species Act and more than half of all other imperiled species in the United States,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which calls the measure “well intentioned but deeply flawed.”
The U.S., one of a few nations that holds its wildlife in public trust rather than private ownership, has a long history of stewardship, dating back to the turn of the 20th century.
But in the last four years, the Trump administration rolled back more than 100 regulatory provisions of the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act, according to the New York Times, creating new urgency for President Joe Biden and Congress.
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