Who Really Pays for Wildlife Conservation?

It is often said that hunters (and anglers) “pay” for wildlife conservation. They do this, the argument goes, in two ways: 1) the money they spend for hunting and fishing licenses goes directly to fund state wildlife agencies; and 2) the excise taxes they pay on items purchased for hunting and fishing, such as guns and fishing tackle, are the source of federal grants to state wildlife agencies under the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts.

There are several problems with this argument. First, it only looks at state wildlife agencies. Wildlife conservation is also financed and implemented by many other entities, notably the federal government, whose contribution alone far outweighs the work done by state wildlife agencies. Secondly, it assumes that everything that state wildlife agencies do constitutes conservation. In fact, as discussed elsewhere, much of what these agencies do is more accurately called hunting and fishing management. Finally, even focusing narrowly on state wildlife agencies, the non-hunting public contributes nearly as much or more, on average, than hunters and anglers.

What is Wildlife Conservation, and Who Does It?

Broadly speaking, wildlife conservation is generally understood as the practice of protecting wild animals and their habitats.  This includes a wide range of activities, such as preserving and restoring habitats, reintroducing species, operating captive breeding programs, educating the public, regulating the take of animals, controlling invasive species, providing technical assistance, and enforcing conservation laws, among other things.

In the U.S., conservation is implemented by many entities, including federal, state and local agencies, private landowners, businesses and non-profits. Taken as a whole, the non-hunting public contributes far more financially than hunters and anglers to conservation activities undertaken collectively by these entities.  One 2015 study concluded that non-hunters accounted for 94 percent of total funding for wildlife conservation and management, based on the operating and land acquisition budgets of the relevant federal agencies and largest wildlife-related nonprofit organizations. While one can argue over details of the methodology used in this study, the overall picture remains unchanged.

Looking at just one aspect of conservation in the U.S.—the role of federal public lands in supporting wildlife habitats and populations—it is clear that non-hunters contribute far more than hunters. Four federal agencies (National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) manage more than 600 million acres of land. These areas provide habitat for thousands of vertebrate species (and countless invertebrates) including hundreds of endangered species. The more than $16 billion cost to manage these lands is shared more or less equally by all taxpayers, 82 percent of whom neither hunt nor fish.

Who Funds State Wildlife Agencies?

Focusing narrowly on just state wildlife agencies, as discussed elsewhere much of what these agencies do is more accurately termed “hunting and fishing management” than “conservation.” They carry out 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.

Nonetheless, non-consumptive users contribute substantially to state wildlife agency budgets—an estimated 48 percent on average–as seen in the chart below.

Source of Agency Funds % Agency Revenues
(avg. across 50 states) [1]
% Contribution of
Hunters & Anglers (est.)
% Contribution of
General Public (est.)
License Fees 35 100 0
Federal Grants (PR) 15 27 [2] [3] 73
Federal Grants (DJ) 9 69 [2] [4] 31
Other 41 18 [5] 82
Total % 100 53 47

In summary, whether considering conservation broadly or focusing narrowly on state wildlife agencies, hunters and anglers are far from the only ones “paying” for conservation. On this basis alone, wildlife advocates should never accept the argument that because hunters “pay” for conservation, they deserve a privileged position in wildlife deliberations.

[1] https://www.fishwildlife.org/application/files/3615/1853/8699/The_State_Conservation_Machine-FINAL.pdf (p.9)

[2] https://wildlifeforall.us/myth-busters/is-hunting-really-conservation/

[3] https://wildlifeforall.us/resources/pittman-robertson-wildlife-restoration-act-explained/

[4] https://wildlifeforall.us/resources/dingell-johnson-sport-fish-restoration-act-explained/

[5] It is assumed that hunters and anglers contribute to these other funding sources in proportion to their percentage (18%) of the general U.S. population.