Is Hunting Really Conservation?

Hunting advocates often say that hunting is conservation. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has the most elaborate (but nonsensical) articulation of this position on its website, but other groups espouse some version of it as well, including most hunting organizations, the National Rifle Association, and even state wildlife agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But is it true? Certainly not on a literal level. Killing animals is obviously not the same as saving them.

But what is usually meant by this statement is that hunting is essential for conservation because hunters and anglers are the primary source of revenues for state wildlife agencies.

Is this true? Not really.

There at least three assumptions behind this belief to examine here:

  1. hunters and anglers contribute more than others to state wildlife agencies’ revenues.
  2. everything that state wildlife agencies do is related to wildlife conservation.
  3. wildlife conservation is limited to the actions of state wildlife agencies.

Assumption One: hunters and anglers disproportionately contribute to state wildlife agencies’ revenues

This is the truest of the three assumptions but it is not as true as hunting advocates would have you believe, and it depends on the state. On average, the sale of hunting and fishing licenses accounts for 35 percent of state wildlife agency revenues, according to this 2015 report. Hunters and anglers are unequivocally responsible for generating this portion of agency revenues, although it is safe to assume that they are as motivated to buy licenses as much by a desire to avoid penalties as they are to support lofty conservation goals.

Hunting advocates often attribute another source of agency revenues to hunters and anglers, namely federal excise taxes allocated to states under the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts. These federal funds account, on average, for 15 and nine percent of state wildlife agency revenues respectively. However, the contribution of hunters and anglers to these funding sources is usually overstated.

Pittman-Robertson funds are derived from excise taxes on guns, ammunition and archery equipment. Of these, guns and ammunition generate about 93 percent of total PR funds, and archery equipment accounts for seven percent.[1] Most guns and ammunition are not purchased for hunting. The percentage varies by year, but about 74 percent of guns and ammo sold are not used for hunting, according to this 2021 report. Therefore, over two-thirds (69 percent[2]) of PR funds are generated by nonhunters, so 31 percent of funds are generated by hunters. 

Dingell-Johnson funders are derived mainly from excise taxes on fishing tackle, motorboat fuel, small engine fuel (for lawn mowers, snow blowers, etc.), and import duties on boats and fishing equipment. At least one-third of these funds are generated by the sale of items not used in fishing.

In summary, hunters and anglers contribute, on average, less than half of state wildlife agency revenues:

  • License fees: 35 percent
  • PR funds: 31% X 15% = 5 percent
  • DJ funds: 67% X 9% = 6 percent
  • Other sources: 41% x 18% (percentage of the public who hunt/fish) = 7 percent
  • Total = 53 percent

Considering that hunters and anglers constitute less than 20 percent of the public but generate about 53 percent of state wildlife agency revenues, it is true that they contribute more than the general public, but not as much as if often claimed.

Assumption Two: everything that state wildlife agencies do is related to wildlife conservation

Even if hunters and anglers contribute more than the general public to state wildlife agency budgets, does that mean they are paying more for wildlife conservation? No, because much of what the agencies do is not conservation.

Conservation is generally understood as the practice of protecting plant and animal species and their habitats. That is not the primary goal of most state wildlife agencies. Rather, their main focus is on producing a harvestable surplus of game and fish to keep license buyers satisfied.

State wildlife agencies undertake a wide variety of activities, including setting and enforcing hunting regulations, administering license sales, providing hunter safety and education programs, securing access for hunting and fishing, constructing and operating firearm ranges, operating fish hatcheries and stocking programs, controlling predators, managing land, improving habitat, responding to complaints, conducting research and public education, and protecting endangered species. A substantial portion of these activities are clearly aimed at managing opportunities for hunting and fishing, and not necessarily the conservation of wildlife.

In fact, much of what agencies do is at odds with conservation. Examples include: raising and releasing non-native predatory fish into their state’s waterways; importing and maintaining nonnative game species to provide novel hunting opportunities; and aggressive policies to reduce or eliminate carnivores.

Assumption Three: wildlife conservation is limited to the actions of state wildlife agencies

State wildlife agencies are not the only ones practicing conservation. Significant wildlife conservation takes place outside state agencies, as others have pointed out, and it is mostly the non-hunting public that pays for this. For example, more than one quarter of the U.S.  is federal public land managed by four agencies—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Forest Service. These 600-plus million acres are vital to wildlife, providing habitat for thousands of species, including hundreds of endangered and threatened animals. The cost to manage these lands is shared more or less equally by the taxpaying public.

In summary, it is not true that hunting is conservation. Hunting is many things, but it is not synonymous with saving species and habitats. Those who say it is are usually trying to justify the status quo in wildlife management, which means privileging consumptive users and excluding the majority of the public that does not hunt or fish from wildlife decisions.

For more information on why hunting is not the same as conservation, read this 2020 article entitled Why Hunting isn’t Conservation and Why it Matters.

[1] It is not clear what the percentage of archery equipment purchased is used for hunting, but even if it were 100 percent, it would not substantially change the calculation.

[2] .93 X .74 = .69