By Frances Stead Sellers, Washington Post, February 2, 2020
STEVENS, Pa. — They settled, watchfully, into position — a retired couple armed with a long-nosed camera and three men with shotguns.
Tom Stoeri balanced the hefty lens on his half-open car window, waiting to capture the Canada geese as they huddled on the frozen lake, fluttering up in occasional agitation before they launched into flight.
A little more than a mile away, John Heidler and two friends scanned the skies from a sunken blind, mimicking the birds’ honking and hoping their array of decoys would lure them within range — until, Pachow! Pachow! Pachow! Two geese dropped in bursts of grey-black plumage, and a third swung low across the snow-streaked landscape before falling to the jaws of Heidler’s chocolate lab.
Public lands such as these at the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area are a shared resource, open to an unlikely mix of hunters and hikers, birdwatchers and mountain bikers.
“It’s a symbiotic thing,” said Meg Stoeri, Tom’s wife and fellow photographer.
But today, that symbiosis is off kilter: Americans’ interest in hunting is on the decline, cutting into funding for conservation, which stems largely from hunting licenses, permits and taxes on firearms, bows and other equipment.
Even as more people are engaging in outdoor activities, hunting license sales have fallen from a peak of about 17 million in the early ’80s to 15 million last year, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data. The agency’s 2016 survey suggested a steeper decline to 11.5 million Americans who say they hunt, down more than 2 million from five years earlier.
“The downward trends are clear,” said Samantha Pedder of the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports, which works to increase the diversity of hunters.
The resulting financial shortfall is hitting many state wildlife agencies.
In Wisconsin, a $4 million to $6 million annual deficit forced the state’s Department of Natural Resources to reduce warden patrols and invasive species control. Michigan’s legislature had to dig into general-tax coffers to save some of the state’s wildlife projects, while other key programs, such as protecting bees and other pollinating creatures, remain “woefully underfunded,” according to Edward Golder, a spokesman for the state’s natural resources department. Some states, including Missouri, are directing sales tax revenue to conservation.
Here in Pennsylvania — where the game commission gets more than 50 percent of its revenue from licenses, permits and taxes — the agency had to cancel construction projects, delay vehicle purchases and leave dozens of positions vacant, according to a 2016 report, even as it tackled West Nile virus and tried to protect rare creatures such as the wood rat.
“That’s what keeps me up at night,” Robert Miller, director of the Governor’s Advisory Council for Hunting, Fishing and Conservation, said of the inadequacies of the user-pay, user-play model that has funded conservation for decades.
A national panel has called for a new funding model to keep at-risk species from needing far costlier emergency measures. The crisis stands to worsen with as many as one-third of America’s wildlife species “at increased risk of extinction,” according to a 2018 report published by the National Wildlife Federation. In December, environmentalists and hunters united in Washington behind two bipartisan bills aimed at establishing new funding sources and facilitating the recruitment of hunters.
The needs are becoming more urgent as development eats into habitats and new challenges crop up, such as climate change and chronic wasting disease, a neurological condition infecting deer. The Trump administration’s recent rollback of pollution controls on waterways will put a greater burden on states to protect wetland habitats.
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