If you’ve ever purchased a fishing rod or arrows for your bow, you’re part of one of the most successful efforts to conserve fish and wildlife in America—The Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration (WSFR) program.
WSFR is a partnership between federal and state fish and wildlife agencies and is regarded by many as the most successful conservation effort in the world. WSFR has resulted in millions of acres of habitat protected and near-miraculous population increases in many species of game animals and sport fish.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Wildlife Restoration element of the program and an opportunity to recognize the achievements.
But the question remains, why does WSFR matter to the average Hoosier?
“The WSFR program has provided over $13 billion to state fish and wildlife agencies since 1937,” said Mark Reiter, director of the DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. “Indiana alone has received $230 million over the years. Without these funds, Indiana would not have the deer hunting, waterfowl hunting, turkey hunting, fishing or wildlife watching opportunities it has today. The funds that hunters and anglers pay directly benefit the state’s fish and wildlife management.”
WSFR was born out desperation. In the early 1900s, many fish and wildlife species were dropping in numbers or disappearing altogether. Animals such as white-tailed deer, wild turkey and Canada geese, while abundant today, were dwindling in the early 20th century. Responsible hunters and anglers worried their heritage was collapsing.
Hunters and firearms manufacturers responded to the crisis by working with congress to create the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. It was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937, marking the beginning of what is now called the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration program. Thirteen years later, anglers and the fishing industry worked with congress to create the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act.
The acts created a model for funding science-based conservation projects through a dedicated excise tax on guns and ammunition, fishing and boating equipment, and boating fuel. The idea is that the users of natural resources should pay for the government programs necessary to support those natural resources, according to Mark Burch, who served as federal assistance coordinator for the Indiana DNR from 1996-2001.
“It’s a government program that’s widely supported by people regardless of political affiliation because it’s a user-pay system,” Burch said. “Hunters and anglers support the program and don’t mind being taxed because they see the benefits they get back from the system.”
The accomplishments of the WSFR program are staggering both in Indiana and nationwide. Among the highlights:
- In 1937, Indiana was one of 11 states where deer hunting was not allowed because numbers were too low. In 2011, hunters harvested more than 129,000 deer in Indiana.
- In 1937, wild turkeys had been wiped out in Indiana and many other states. In 2010, an estimated 63,000 hunters took part in the 19-day spring turkey season in Indiana and harvested a record 13,742 wild turkeys.
- By the 1950s, sport fishing in the Great Lakes was nearly nonexistent. Now, thanks in part to Sport Fish Restoration funds, the Great Lakes are a world class fishery for salmon, trout, walleye, smallmouth bass and perch.
All these improvements have been good for the outdoor industries and good for the economy at large, according to Gary Armstrong, the current federal assistance coordinator for the Indiana DNR.
With increased wildlife populations, the number of Americans hunting has more than doubled since 1937. In Indiana, hunting contributes $223 million to the Hoosier economy and angling contributes about $627 million.
“These programs support the work it takes to maintain that economic engine,” Armstrong said. “I’m not an economist, but I think what we do is pretty important to the small rural economies.”
As important as the WFSR program is, public awareness is wearing off with the passing of time.
The excise tax that supports WSFR is paid by the manufacturer to the federal government. It is then redistributed to state wildlife agencies based on the number of licensed hunters and anglers in the state and the geographic size of the state.
While the additional cost is passed on to consumers, it doesn’t show up on their sales receipts at the sporting goods store or bait-and-tackle shop.
Most consumers today have no idea sporting goods manufacturers are paying an extra 10 to 11 percent on hunting, fishing and boating equipment to support conservation, said Michelle Cain, wildlife information specialist for the DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife.
“When you buy certain hunting and fishing equipment, you pay into this great program,” Cain said. “But no one ever tells you about it. I would say the majority of hunters and anglers have no idea they are helping the resource to such a great extent.”
Indiana’s first project through WSFR was buying the land that is now Hovey Lake Fish & Wildlife Area, in southwestern Indiana. Today, Indiana uses WSFR funding for a variety of ongoing conservation projects, including:
- Stocking more than 20 million fish a year in Indiana waters.
- Maintaining more than 350 existing public access sites for boating and angling, and adding three to five new sites every year.
- Building shooting ranges.
- Operating and maintaining Fish & Wildlife Areas, which provide about 150,000 acres of public hunting and angling.
- Helping private landowners improve wildlife habitat.
The most current public access project that used WSFR funds was the land acquisition at Pigeon River Fish & Wildlife Area, in northeastern Indiana.
So what would the hunting and fishing atmosphere be like in Indiana and across the country if WSFR never came into existence?
“It’s almost unimaginable to me,” Burch said.