GLADWIN COUNTY – If anything good has come out of the COVID shutdowns for me it was the opportunity to start hunting again. Over the years a busy schedule had whittled my hunting down to about four or five days during the deer season. Growing up outside of Saginaw we hunted 40-50 days a year. We looked forward to the pheasant opener with more anticipation than the deer season and duck hunting on the Shiawassee Flats could get us out of school for the afternoon. 

Marriage and kids eventually cut into the time I spent outdoors. Moving to Metro Detroit didn’t help either. I could no longer jump on my bike with a shotgun and ride out to a hunting spot. Yes, we were able to do that in Saginaw Township back in the 1970’s without anyone giving it much thought. Today a SWAT team would probably surround you before you got out of the neighborhood. Over time I have spent less and less time hunting and fishing and I’m not the only one.

In 1959, the year I was born, United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) data indicates that over 956,000 individuals bought hunting licenses in Michigan. In 1976, when I was riding my bike to hunt there were still 946,735 hunters in the state. In 2019 that number was down to 685,185 a drop of over 28 percent in my lifetime. Dire news when you consider the amount of money raised for conservation through self-imposed excise taxes on hunting, shooting and archery equipment.

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is unique. It centers on the idea that wildlife belongs to everyone, not just the rich. Back in the 1800’s concerned sportsmen got together to protect dwindling wildlife stocks. The passenger pigeon was being driven to extinction and other animals such as the bison; white-tailed deer and wild turkey populations had been decimated. These people coalesced around the idea that in numbers there is power and they began to use that power to change the way resources were exploited.

Several important treaties and pieces of legislation were passed which have provided a major funding for wildlife conservation in the United States. Arguably the two most important were the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 commonly called the Pittman-Robertson Act and the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act of 1950 (Dingell-Johnson Act). These and several other smaller funds generally provide more than 75 percent of state fish and wildlife agency’s annual budget in some states. In Michigan the sales of licenses usually account for about $61 million while the federal money amounts to around $31 million according to the Michigan Wildlife Council.

These self imposed excise taxes on hunting, shooting, archery, and angling equipment, and a tax on boating fuels, hunters, recreational shooters and fishermen have raised over $21 billion since 1937 according to the USFWS. This along with money from various hunting and fishing licenses provide the majority of the funds that states have available for conservation related activities. Aurelia Skipwith, Director of the USFWS said, “These funds provide benefits for outdoor recreation of all types. This is why working with states and partners to recruit, retain and reactivate hunters and anglers is essential to the future of conservation.”

A key component for the distribution of this Pittman-Robinson money is the number of paid hunting license holders in a state. States with a lot of licensed hunters have the potential of more money for conservation. That’s why there is some reason for optimism in Michigan this fall. Hunting numbers were way up this year. By mid October the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had sold almost 200,000 more hunting licenses in 2020 than 2019. Typically about 40 percent of license sales take place in the week before the gun deer opener. If that holds true this year license sales will have grown astronomically.  Even more promising is the sales of licenses to first time hunters. 64,000 licenses were sold to first time hunters this year that is 31,000 more than at the same time last year. 

Outdoor recreation is surging while other forms of recreation lag due to COVID-19, which is great news for conservation funding and some segments of the economy. A recent study by the Michigan United Conservation Clubs showed that hunting and fishing support nearly 171,000 jobs annually and add $11.2 billion to the Michigan economy, with the greatest impact in southeast Michigan. Those numbers could be even higher this year.

As an adult I don’t need to ride my bike to hunt and living in Gladwin County I have plenty of spots to choose from. As I worked on this story on Monday afternoon I also gained more free time. The governor extended the pause in high school sports for another 12 days. Disappointing yes, but also an opportunity. It looks like I will be doing a lot more hunting in the near future so it is probably time to break out some of those old rabbit and squirrel recipes.

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