The Greatest Conservation Story You Never Heard: 75 Years of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration
Imagine a nationwide coalition saying “please tax us; we want to pay federal taxes.” Such a thing seems inconceivable today, but that’s essentially what happened starting 75 years ago when hunters and anglers called for what became the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration (WSFR) programs.
They were motivated by dire peril. By the late 1800s, America was on a runaway train barreling toward a natural resource disaster— and most people didn’t even know it. While we were busy creating the richest and most powerful nation in the world, we were also laying waste to its natural abundance.
By the late 1800s, vast herds of 100 million bison and 40 million pronghorn antelope pounding across the American plains had vanished. An estimated 60 million beaver had been reduced to 100,000. Up to 40 million passenger pigeons, so dense in numbers it took hours for them to pass overhead, had disappeared. Waterfowl populations had plummeted. Swamps had been drained, prime habitat converted to agriculture, and market hunting continued unabated. Women wore hats festooned with feathers of 40 varieties of native birds, and would eventually wear the entire bodies of birds on their heads. We were plucking America bare.
The story was similar in Texas, where deer, turkey and other game animals had declined to near extirpation by the turn of the century. For example, in 1911, the greater prairie chicken of the Blackland Prairie was last observed. By 1960, desert bighorn sheep had disappeared from western mountaintops.
Yet by the early 1900s, a handful of conservation-minded free-thinkers emerged with the political will to save America’s natural treasures. They were, by and large, America’s hunters and anglers. In the first half of the 20th century, near total responsibility for natural resource conservation fell on their shoulders. That’s because state hunting and fishing license revenue provided the one stable funding source to protect, restore, and manage fish and wildlife resources.
But it was not enough. Underfunded, understaffed, and prone to political interference, fledgling wildlife agencies in Texas and other states more often than not confronted frustration and failure instead of success. The science of fish and wildlife management did not exist, and funds to better understand the principles of fish and wildlife restoration were non-existent. Little money was available to acquire land, pursue restoration work or enforce game laws.
A historic change for the better began 75 years ago in 1937, when Congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid to Wildlife Restoration Act. The law levies an 11 percent excise tax on rifles, shotguns, ammunition and archery equipment and a 10 percent tax on handguns. The tax is paid by manufacturers, not by customers at checkout counters, so most people don’t know about it. Since its passage, Texas has received more than $300 million for wildlife research and conservation, creation of wildlife management areas, hunter education, shooting range development and related work.
Key language in the law includes “a prohibition against the diversion of license fees paid by hunters for any other purpose than the administration of said State fish and game department.” With those words, the science of fish and wildlife management was taken out of the political arena. If a state wanted federal money to help restore wildlife, they had to guarantee their wildlife agency’s right to use every dime of hunting and fishing license revenue to support it.
In 1950, Congress passed the Dingell-Johnson Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act, mandating a similar excise tax on fishing rods and related equipment. This has funneled nearly $350 million to Texas for fisheries research and conservation, creation of fish hatcheries, boater and angler education, boat ramp and marina construction and more.
These two historic laws were hard-won victories. It took years of pushing by conservation groups, and many failed attempts, before they finally passed. Federal excise taxes, along with state hunting and fishing license revenue, are the key to the North American model of wildlife conservation, in which wildlife are owned by the people, and a “user-pay, public-benefit” system taxes those who use the resources most and are willing to pay to manage them for the common good.
To study the 75-year legacy of WSFR funding in Texas is to track the state’s history of fisheries and wildlife conservation. Pick any high point, any great achievement, and this money is behind it. It would take a book to cover all it has made possible in Texas over 75 years, but here are some highlights.
In 1945, Texas used WSFR funds to buy 5,335 acres for the state’s first wildlife management area. Sierra Diablo WMA in far West Texas today encompasses close to 11,800 acres and is a stronghold for some of the last remaining desert bighorn sheep in Texas. This native species had vanished from the state by 1960, but is coming back across West Texas thanks to restoration work that began at Sierra Diablo WMA and continues today.
More wildlife management areas followed, all made possible by WSFR funds. In 1948, Black Gap became the state’s second WMA. Gene Howe and Kerr WMAs followed in 1950. Derden WMA near Palestine was renamed in 1952 for Gus A. Engeling, the first biologist assigned to the area, who was shot and killed by a poacher there in 1951. J.D. Murphree WMA near Port Arthur began in 1958. Matador in the Panhandle started in 1959, and Chaparral WMA was born in South Texas in 1969.
Today there are 49 Texas wildlife management areas covering 769,686 acres, almost all created with WSFR federal funds. Each represents a unique ecological region for that part of the state. They serve as research and demonstration areas showcasing best practices to thousands of ranchers and other landowners, and they also offer public hunting, fishing, camping, birding and the like.
Following the devastating 1950s drought, a boom of reservoir development in the 1960s splashed new “lakes” with big surface acreage across the state. Fisheries managers saw a chance to provide quality fishing opportunities in new warm water habitats. The Sport Fish Restoration Program was instrumental in turning the Texas reservoir system into a freshwater fishing mecca and economic powerhouse.
WSFR funds have paid for biologists and resources needed to create and develop freshwater fisheries through innovative fishing regulations, fish stockings, and fish habitat improvements. Today, these provide opportunities for more than 1.8 million anglers who spend 27 million days fishing in Texas each year. Freshwater anglers generate $2.38 billion dollars in annual retail sales and support more than 51,000 jobs across the state.
Throughout the 1980s, virtually all the Sport Fish Restoration funds for Texas were used to construct new fish hatcheries and renovate older dilapidated ones. Tens of millions of dollars flowed to renovate the Dundee, Possum Kingdom, A.E. Wood, and CCA Marine Development Center hatcheries. In the 1990’s Sea Center Texas and the Texas Freshwater Fishing Center came on line. These unique facilities blended research and production with visitor aquaria and youth fishing ponds. Today, the hatchery stocking program is integrated into the state’s overall fisheries management program.
The “Redfish Wars” era in Texas showcases the value of WSFR to address big problems. After commercial fishing sent red drum stocks to alarming lows, H.B. 100 (the state “redfish bill”) in 1981 designated red drum and spotted sea trout as game fish and prohibited their sale. It fell to state hatcheries, built with WSFR dollars, to bring back these severely depleted stocks. From 1983-2011, hatcheries released 624 million red drum and 65 million spotted sea trout fish fingerlings. These huge production numbers, combined with science-based bag limits and other regulations, have brought both fish back to record abundance today.
What about encouraging safe, legal and ethical hunting, boating and fishing? Without WSFR, there would be no Texas hunter, boater and angler education programs. Over 50,000 people were introduced to fishing in 2011 thanks to Texas angler education. Since 1972, nearly 1 million youth and adults have been trained in hunter education, dropping the number of Texas hunting accidents and fatalities to an all-time low in 2011, to about one accident per 24,000 licenses holders.
Clearly, WSFR means more than healthy lands and waters, or abundant fish and wildlife. It means a higher quality of life for people, and in some cases it means lives saved. One conservation leader who helped create WSFR put it this way:
“…I feel that the high tension at which the average man has been living is wrecking entirely too many nervous systems. Hunting and fishing is the best nerve tonic I know, and I believe that a greater opportunity for the average citizen to engage in this type of outdoor recreation would greatly promote both the health and happiness of our people.”
A. Willis Robertson wrote those words in 1932. They still ring true in 2012.
So, if you buy hunting or fishing equipment, stand tall and proud knowing what 75 years of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration funding has done for fish and wildlife conservation across America. As the national 75th anniversary commemoration effort says: “It’s your nature.”