Hunting is ‘slowly dying off,’ creating a crisis for species

Nick Semanco, left, and Adam Saurazas set up their blind in the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Stevens, Pa., on Jan. 9. (Kyle Grantham/for The Washington Post)
Nick Semanco, left, and Adam Saurazas set up their blind in the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Stevens, Pa., on Jan. 9. (Kyle Grantham/for The Washington Post)

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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