Guns, money and power: The firearm industry and wildlife conservation

Firearms-related tax revenue is an outsized source of funding for wildlife conservation, even as gun ownership and hunting no longer go hand-in-hand, according to a recent study published in the journal Conservation and Society.

The authors identified ethical problems and a need for re-imagining conservation funding, including who bears responsibility and who reaps the benefits. The issues raised by the study have relevance to the continued use of lead ammunition for hunting, as agencies making regulatory decisions about lead ammunition are financially dependent on the industry most opposed to its regulation.

John Casellas Connors, author of the study and assistant professor at Texas A&M University, told EHN the current funding model empowers the firearm industry in decisions about public lands and wildlife.

“This is presented as a rationale for why they should have say or be considered in environmental decision-making,” he said.

Fear, guns and conservation ethics 

The study authors highlighted the link between wildlife management and social dynamics that drive the purchase of firearms. This includes fear, an important factor influencing gun sales. When fear of crime, fear for personal safety, and fear of gun control spurred by mass shootings translate to gun sales, state wildlife agencies get a boost in funding.

This financial arrangement was established by 1937’s Pittman-Robertson Act, which redirected an excise tax on firearms into a fund for wildlife management. This “user pays” funding strategy was built on the assumption that most guns are purchased for hunting. The funds help state agencies manage wildlife and habitats, plus other activities including facilitating wildlife-related recreation and hunter education.

Authors of the new study analyzed the “user pays” model. They compared funding from Pittman-Robertson’s firearm-related sales with revenue from hunting licenses, fishing licenses and fishing equipment since the 1960s. The findings indicate that in recent years, the role of firearm and ammunition sales were more critical than ever for wildlife agencies’ funding. Pittman-Robertson revenue more than doubled in the past 20 years, to more than $750 million in 2020. Yet hunting license sales did not change significantly during the same period—74% of all taxable firearm and ammunition retail sales are not associated with hunting. This means that guns purchased for other purposes are increasingly funding wildlife conservation.

“Some of the increases in gun sales in recent years appear to be motivated by fears of social unrest during the pandemic and concerns about racial violence in the U.S.,” Casellas Connors said. “If this type of fear and this type of conflict in the United States generates gun sales, is it appropriate for that money to be used for conservation purposes?”

Ron Regan, executive director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, disagrees with the study’s conclusions. “I think the conclusions drawn by the researchers are misplaced at best. It’s a broad leap to conclude that this money should be branded as dirty or “violent” money because of a presupposition that ‘guns are bad’.”

Gun users pay and benefit

conservation firearms

As the importance of Pittman-Roberson funds to wildlife conservation has grown, so have benefits to non-hunting gun users.

“The wildlife ‘users’ of yore— hunters— imagined by Pittman-Robertson are no longer the primary ‘payers’ in the user pays model, and Pittman-Robertson is being remade to reflect this new reality,” Chris Rea, co-author of the study and assistant professor of public affairs at The Ohio State University, told EHN.

According to the study, the term “user” now increasingly means “gun user”, and the firearm industry has lobbied for incremental retooling of Pittman-Robertson to cater to gun users who do not use their firearms for hunting. These changes have made it easier to fund shooting range construction and support recreational shooting — not just hunting — with Pittman-Robertson funds. Legislation in 2019 also modified the text of Pittman-Robertson to incorporate the terms “recreational shooter” and “recreational shooting.”

The primary “users” of natural areas, including hikers and birdwatchers, are not “payers” in the current model. Tim Richardson, who has more than 30 years of experience in wildlife conservation, told EHN the outdoor industry bears some blame for this.

“Wildlife management and conservation needs a lot more money, more stable and consistent funding … unfortunately, during the Conservation and Reinvestment Act effort in 2000, which failed to pass Congress, we saw stakeholders like the backpack manufacturers, camera and binocular companies strongly opposing ‘user pay’ taxes on their products,” Richardson, who received the Houston Safari Club Foundation’s Conservationist of the Year in 2020, told EHN. “They wouldn’t contribute a dime. Backpacking companies say, ‘our profit margins are too small.’ I think that’s bullcrap.”

In a press release, the Outdoor Industry Association said one reason for their opposition was the same problem posed by an excise tax on firearms: Many of the products would not actually be purchased for use related to wildlife and public lands. “For most outdoor apparel and footwear, there is simply no way to equitably discern what is purchased for outdoor use and what is not,” the statement reads.

If ‘user pays’ excise taxes are problematic for funding wildlife conservation, where should the money come from? Casellas Connors said general funds should be considered. He pointed to the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act as a promising bill that would direct $1.3 billion from the Treasury to the Pittman-Robertson account.

Regan agrees the bill has potential. “State fish and wildlife agencies are very strongly supportive of broadening the conservation funding paradigm in this country, and I think there’s a good chance the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act will pass. But it’s not about supplanting the contributions of hunters or firearms owners, it’s about growing the pie.”

Partnering with purveyors of misinformation

lead poisoning

The firearm industry’s association with the protection of wildlife and public lands is publicly celebrated by industry and wildlife agencies, including the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, or NSSF, the U.S. trade association for the firearm industry, recently unveiled a program they describe as an initiative of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to “strengthen ties” between manufacturers and state agencies. The Partner with a Payer program arranges for firearm industry employees to experience field tours with wildlife biologists, and for state agency employees to tour firearm manufacturing facilities.

According to Connor’s study, the firearm industry’s prominent role in conservation has allowed them to cultivate an image of having a “benevolent relationship to conservation.”

Yet EHN has previously reported that the industry regularly engages in science denial and misinformation about the use of lead ammunition for hunting. There is a scientific consensus calling for a transition to non-lead ammunition for hunting, recognizing there’s “overwhelming evidence for the toxic effects of lead in humans and wildlife, even at very low exposure levels.” Scientists recently reported that nearly half of bald eagles in the U.S. have lead poisoning, and lead ammunition is hampering populations of bald eagles in the Northeast. Scientists recently concluded that lead-contaminated hunted meat is the most poorly addressed example of food lead contamination.

EHN has also found scientists fearful and reluctant to publicly push back on misinformation, perpetuating the industry’s virtuous image within the conservation community. Richardson said he was not familiar with the NSSF’s history of science denial. “They’re not known to me as being dishonest,” he said. Meanwhile, the NSSF regularly attacks the scientific consensus consistent with Richardson’s views that the use of lead ammunition for hunting and sport shooting is an issue of human, wildlife and environmental health. “I don’t see why we can’t use non-lead ammunition. We’re conservationists. That’s paramount,” he said.

Richardson said that, in general, state agencies should and do have standards regarding the conduct of their partner organizations.

“State wildlife agencies are science-based. No state agency, for its own sake, for its own protection, should knowingly partner with anyone spreading misinformation,” he said.

Money, and power and lead ammunition

lead ammunition ban

Wildlife conservation’s financial dependence on the firearm industry means that political action to deal with firearms-related problems could harm conservation funding.

“This raises the question of how this funding mechanism may produce unexpected political alliances in order to ensure that decisions regarding guns aren’t to the detriment of conservation and vice versa,” Casellas Connors said.

EHN has previously reported that when states consider requiring the use of non-lead ammunition for hunting, the firearm industry makes unsubstantiated claims that the transition will damage funding for state agencies.

The industry has also tackled regulation of lead ammunition at the federal level. In 2015, a top legislative priority for the National Shooting Sports Foundation was to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from asserting authority over lead ammunition via the Toxic Substances Control Act. The provision was signed into law, redefining lead in ammunition as a non-chemical substance.

In 2017, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, or AFWA, allied with the firearm industry in support of former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as he rescinded a ban on using lead ammunition in national wildlife refuges. The ban was implemented by his predecessor, Dan Ashe.

Regan said AFWA’s support for overturning the ban was in part about “transparent due process.” He views the ban as an “11th hour administrative decree that did not acknowledge the legitimate regulatory and management interests of those state agencies.”

A wildlife professional who requested confidentiality referenced a photo of Zinke overturning the ban with AFWA in attendance. “These are the people that are supposed to be managing our fish and wildlife resources in North America, and they are happy — happy — to see [Dan] Ashe’s order rescinded by a political act. These are the people who could make a difference for human health and for wildlife by promoting the use of non-lead ammunition. But they have decided it’s all about money,” the wildlife professional said.

Regan emphasized the virtue of firearm industry money: “Conservation is such an important topic, and I hope we don’t find ourselves in a zero-sum game in jabbing sharp sticks at one constituency that has helped pay for conservation. I hope we instead acknowledge and see the good that comes from the purchases of firearms and ammo for fish and wildlife management.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Shooting Sports Foundation did not respond to questions.

Banner photo credit: Samantha Totoni