Edited to add: For several years, after Larry Jordan and I established the Wildlife Conservation Pass Project, the idea of a wildlife watchers’ stamp or pass gained quite a bit traction and support. It was to be an alternative and additional revenue stream to tap into the economic potential discussed below, and also to bring added income to refuges which have been historically underfunded.

When the new administration took over in 2016, exhibiting from the start its hostility to environmental ideas, we put the project on hiatus. We hope to revisit it at some point in the future. It remains to us a viable, important, and workable solution for bringing revenue and important stakeholders to the table of wildlife decisions.

Wildlife Watchers and National Wildlife Refuges

This is a three part series about National Wildlife Refuge funding and how the current system affects land-use privileges for non-hunters and non-consumptive users. In Part 2 I interview photographer Marlin Greene who has created a No Hunting Stamp to promote awareness about hunting on National Wildlife Refuges. And in Part 3 I discuss how birders, photographers and wildlife watchers can capitalize on their economic power.

Here’s the issue. This blurb is taken from the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge site:

Delevan NWR Statement

The Non-Public in Public Wildlife Refuges

Delevan is not an anomaly. When October arrives, non-hunters, birders, wildlife photographers and wildlife viewers find their access significantly curtailed in many refuges, owing to hunting priority. Some trails, boardwalks and dike loops are closed to all but hunters from October through the end of January. As the signage goes up, the “public” component of wildlife refuges fades into small cordoned-off areas adjacent to hunting zones.

In the case of refuges like Delevan (above), non-hunters are pointed to a pull-out from the road, or a driving loop with no pedestrian access. All the while, hunters fire away in free roam areas and established blinds on these refuges — which constitute large swaths of acreage designated for hunting alone.

Duck Blind and Decoys on River

The end result is limited wildlife viewing during the height of migratory bird season, consistent hunting pressure on ducks and geese that use the refuges to rest and refuel after long migrations, significant injury rates and crippling of migrating birds, and hunting disturbance on non-target, non-game species. Depending on the refuge and the state in question, hunts occur every day of the week or on several days of the week.

In some areas, water birds get no reprieve from shotgun fire for the more than three months of hunting pressure that occurs in our wildlife “refuges.” If you’ve photographed or birded in refuges where hunting is allowed without break, you may have experience with skittish resident and migratory birds. There is disruption in hunted areas — in feeding, flocking and roosting routines. Some birds have even modified their behavior to (as one example) fly later at night, after shooting hours end.

Waterfowling publications and organizations acknowledge these behavioral disruptions when writing about how hunters can outsmart late-season ducks who’ve changed their movements to avoid hunters.

From the article Fooling Today’s Highly Educated Waterfowl (Ducks Unlimited):

“With the exception of the weather, nothing has a bigger impact on waterfowl behavior these days than hunting pressure. While duck harvests have declined in recent years from the record highs of the late 1990s, waterfowlers continue to spend more days in the field and are bagging more birds than at most times in modern history. The widespread use of ATVs, mud motors, mechanized decoys, and other high-tech gear has also made duck hunters more mobile and effective than in the past, exerting ever greater pressure on the birds. Waterfowl have reacted to the onslaught by becoming more elusive and challenging to hunt than ever before. To have consistent success in intensively hunted areas — especially on public lands — waterfowlers have to adapt their hunting tactics to the changing habits of the birds.

Mallard and Canvasback Duck Decoys

Money Changes Everything

The history of hunting on National Wildlife Refuges parallels the history of refuge funding. You can find a chronological overview of legislation here, at the Federal Duck Stamp Office website. But, in summary:

Early refuges were established to protect wildlife from the unscrupulous and indiscriminate hunting practices at the end of the 19th century. Plume hunters, market hunters and opportunists of all varieties nearly wiped out birds like egrets for their willowy plumes, and slaughtered bison for even more nefarious political reasons. The Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 expanded the refuge system and “provided authorization for the acquisition of wetlands for waterfowl habitat.” With the passage of the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act in 1934, a fund was created for refuge land acquisition. In 1959, Public Law 85-585 amended the Act to limited hunting opportunities to 40 percent of a refuge. The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 was amended in 1978 to remove that 40 percent cap and allow hunting on more than 40 percent of refuge land.

The NRA and Hunters Have Disproportionate Influence on Wildlife Laws

In recent years, continuous pressure by sportsmens groups and the National Rifle Association (NRA) to provide more hunting opportunities on National Wildlife Refuges has resulted in refuges previously closed to hunting, now being opened to hunters. Species formerly protected on some of these refuges, are now subjected to hunting pressure, with many of these changes slipping under the public radar. Some the refuge changes are enumerated in this NRA letter to its members on the subject of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997. The letter acknowledges that the “NRA played a key role in getting language included in this act making hunting a ‘priority public use’ on National Wildlife Refuges.” In a separate NRA document, their Director of Conservation, Wildlife and Natural Resources is quoted as saying: “We have always felt confident that the language in the Improvement Act (which the NRA was involved in drafting) provided the necessary firewall against HSUS’ continuing assaults on hunting in wildlife refuges.”

This next excerpt comes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service document Conserving the Future: Wildlife Refuges and the Next Generation:

“There is an unbreakable bond between traditional users, such as anglers and hunters, and the Refuge System because these users depend on healthy fish and wildlife populations and habitats, and their activities are directly related to the System’s mission. We are committed to working with state fish and wildlife agencies, hunters and anglers to increase wildlife-dependent recreational uses on public lands.”

How Much Do Duck Stamps Fund?

At the crux of land-used decisions on National Wildlife Refuges is the source of funding or, rather, the attributable source. Hunters and hunting groups rationalize their priority usage by citing the Federal Duck Stamp dollars that hunters bring into refuges. Duck Stamp revenue, in sum, has purchased approximately 3 percent of the Refuge System lands. The rest of the funding is provided through Congressional appropriations, or public funds.

Here’s the funding summary from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service page on land acquisition:

  • The sale of Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps (Duck Stamps) have brought in about $477 million since 1934
  • Another $197 million has been added to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (MBCF) as an “advance loan” from the Treasury
  • About $153 million has been added to the MBCF from import duties on firearms and ammunition and from refuge entrance fees
  • Collectively, these MBCF funds have purchased about 2.7 million acres (about 3 percent of Refuge System lands)
  • Congress appropriates funds for land acquisition primarily with funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (MBCF)
  • An additional 1.4 million acres (about 1.5 percent of Refuge System lands) have been purchased using about $1 billion from the Land and Water Conservation Fund

Non-Hunters and Wildlife Refuge Funding

What you don’t always hear is that some of the Duck Stamp revenue comes from non-hunting birders, photographers, stamp collectors and conservationists. As a non-hunter, if you buy your Duck Stamp at an individual refuge, that refuge may mark you in their book as hunter or non-hunter. But if you buy your Duck Stamp online, at the USPS store, or at other venues, to the best of my research on this, there is no checkbox to suggest your affiliation. I did write a letter to the Federal Duck Stamp Office, asking for a simple designation of “non-hunter” in all online forms, to more accurately track our purchases. So far, the office has been unresponsive to this request and consequently, I did not purchase my stamp.

When land use is discussed and designated, duck stamp funds are easily grouped together as revenue from hunters, for hunter PR purposes. And the current system remains, with the growing number of non-hunting, non-consumptive users having comparatively little financial or political voice to challenge the current norms. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in their 2006 survey of wildlife recreation, reports that U.S. hunters number 12.5 million while wildlife viewers number 71+ million.

Birders on Observation Boardwalk

On a recent visit to a local wildlife refuge, I asked the refuge personnel if they tracked proceeds from non-hunters. I was told, “well, most of our duck stamp purchases are from hunters anyway.” My response was that it stands to reason that hunters would purchase more duck stamps at the refuge because the stamp is mandated by federal law if a person wants to hunt waterfowl there. This cycle of funding favors those who purchase the stamp, not because of any particular loyalty to conservation, but because of self-interest in hunting water birds. As stated above, non-hunters who choose to contribute to the Duck Stamp program, who want to help fund habitat acquisition and restoration on refuges, are not counted separately and thus perpetuate the status quo, for lack of viable alternatives. (In Part 2 of this series, I discuss this issue with a wildlife photographer who’s addressing this disparity by creating a No Hunting Stamp each year — to bring awareness to this issue.)

Refuge Funding and the Balance of Power

Some hunters are, indeed, aware of this imbalance and understand that if the funding structure changed to accommodate non-consumptive users like birders and photographers, more equitable usage of refuge lands would most likely follow.

Here’s one such statement, taken from a fly fishing forum (commenter’s identity removed):

I was in the meeting when Mr. _____ proposed that hikers, birdwatchers, horse riders, etc. start paying their fair share. My concern was that making them pay would give them a more important voice in the public and political arena. As it is, we hunters and fishers can pretty much protect our concerns because we are the only ones paying for it. Give the tree huggers, PETA and other non-compromising groups the right to say they are helping pay for it and you can bet some of the hunting and fishing will suffer….We must be careful who we empower.”

Because of this ongoing meme in the wildlife community — that hunters are our greatest conservationists and funders — I know birders and photographers who feel pressure to accept the current system, even as they are uncomfortable with increased hunting pressure on our public refuges. Others have decided not to purchase duck stamps for the very reasons I describe.  As Mike at the 10,000 Birds blog writes:

“When it comes time to draft important conservation legislation or plan the creation a 21st Century Youth Conservation Corps, we non-extractive wildlife enthusiasts are forgotten in favor of the hook and bullet club. Apparently, when it comes time to calculate the financial contributions of the different sectors of outdoor enthusiasts, only hunters and anglers put up worthwhile cash, in part through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.”

All of these reasons are precisely why an alternative, non-hunting revenue stream would be an effective way to bring more of us into the discussion about our National Wildlife Refuges — and to have a say in how our wild lands are managed and used, and how the wild animals on those public lands are overseen and protected. From the start, refuges have been underfunded owing to Congressional appropriations that simply don’t meet the needs of the 553 refuges in the national system. In more stringent economic times, those resources are being stretched in a way that jeopardizes the health of our National Refuge System as an entity. Read this document — Short-Changing America’s Wildlife — from CARE (Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement). It will give you a bigger picture of the budget shortfalls facing National Wildlife refuges.

As it stands today, there is no equitable access for non-hunters in the areas hunters use — even on non-hunting days at refuges. Birders and photographers could pay fees as hunters do, to access the same wetlands zones in a more balanced way. But instead, there is a huge disparity between the privileges and freedoms given to hunters on refuges, particularly in the face of how disruptive hunting is on many levels — and then, the limited privileges accorded those of us who visit refuges in less intrusive, photographic and bird-watching ways.

Non-consumptive, non-hunting users outnumber hunters significantly and our voices should be proportionally represented on National Wildlife Refuge issues. We also offer the potential of significant and, as of yet, untapped source of revenue in an economic climate where so many of our parks and wild lands are suffering for lack of available funds.

Next … Part 2: The No-Hunting Stamp

Related posts: Fly Away Home and Safe | The “Cripples” — Or Why I Hate Wing Shooting