Why It Matters: Who doesn’t love something at a free or discounted rate, especially when it comes to something that you greatly enjoy doing? Every year across the country, legislators take it upon themselves to attempt to provide certain groups with the opportunity to purchase free or discounted hunting and/or fishing licenses. While we can all agree that many of these efforts are well intended and aim to remove potential barriers of entry to the outdoors or thank individuals for some level of public service, these efforts can have a profound negative impact on conservation funding. Here’s the case for protecting state fish and wildlife agency funding.
- In 2017, former Tennessee State Senator and National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucus (NASC) Executive Council Member (EC) Mike Bell, championed SB 454, which allows the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to be reimbursed by the state general fund for the issuance of free or partially discounted combination hunting and fishing licenses to persons on or after January 1, 2017.
- In 2023, NASC EC Member and Mississippi Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus Co-Chair Representative Scott Bounds introduced HB 1012, which mirrored the Tennessee bill and would have allowed the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks to be reimbursed by the state general fund for the issuance of hunting or fishing licenses at a free or discounted rate.
- Also in 2023, Virginia Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus Co-Chair Delegate James Edmunds authored similar legislation (HB 2470) that, with the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation’s (CSF) support, passed the Subcommittee and the Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake, and Natural Resources before stalling in the legislative process.
While it’s easy to make the argument that it’s justifiable for certain groups of people to have the opportunity to purchase free or discounted hunting and fishing licenses, we must remember that fish and wildlife are public trust resources that belong to all citizens. Our state fish and wildlife agencies are tasked with managing these public trust resources on limited budgets, and when accounting for inflation, it makes their jobs that much harder when they must fight misguided efforts that reduce their revenue stream.
Through the “user pays – public benefits” American System of Conservation Funding (ASCF), sportsmen and women generate the vast majority of funding for conservation in the states. While it may be easy to look at issuing a free or discounted hunting and fishing license at face value, we must remember the federal dollars that states obtain through the Pittman-Robertson (PR) and Dingell-Johnson (DJ) Acts. These critical federal dollars that each state fish and wildlife agency receive are dependent on the state’s size and the number of paid hunting and fishing license holders in that state. Allowing an individual to obtain a free hunting or fishing license has a far greater impact than just the direct cost of the license because the state misses out on the 3:1 federal matching funds. For example, for a $35.00 license, the state loses the ability to leverage an additional $105.00 for a total loss of $140.00 for every free $35.00 license.
Protecting the integrity of hunters and anglers as the primary sources of conservation funding is critical to successfully managing our fish and wildlife resources and supporting our outdoor sporting heritage. If legislatures wish to recognize or reward specific groups for their societal contributions through the issuance of free or discounted hunting or fishing licenses, CSF encourages legislatures to consider following Tennessee’s lead by passing similar legislation that would reimburse the revenue that the state fish and wildlife agency loses through the issuance of free or discounted licenses. License sales and the federal matching are dollars are critical sources of revenue for state fish and wildlife agencies particularly because most state fish and wildlife agencies are primarily funded through ASCF.
CSF will continue to work alongside the NASC network and fight to protect funding that is critical for conservation and thus the continuation of our shared outdoor sporting traditions, and we hope to see more bills modeled after the Tennessee legislation signed into law in the coming years.