Over the weekend The Oregonian ran a good short series on the diminishing numbers of hunters and anglers in the state. While the state’s population has doubled since 1950, the number of hunters and fishermen has declined. (Read the articles here, here, here, and here.) This is not just a Beaver State phenomenon — it’s true nationwide, and it may have some troubling implications for wildlife protection.

The Oregonian seems mostly concerned that without hunting and fishing, fewer people will want to protect wildlife and natural areas. I think that’s wrong. Northwesterners are still getting out into nature in vast, teeming, trail-clogging hordes. In fact, wildlife watchers generate substantially more economic activity than hunters and anglers combined.

The more important question — and the one that The Oregonian gives comparatively short shrift to — is a basic policy question. As the paper has it:

… who will pay the costs of preserving habitat and managing fish and wildlife? Hunters and fishermen now foot most of the bill, not just through the steep license, tag and access fees they pay, but also through countless hours of volunteer labor, pulling out abandoned fences, cutting down water-sucking juniper trees, planting streamside willows and tending boxes of fish eggs.

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In Oregon, as in many other states, hunting and fishing licenses, together with taxes on items like ammunition and fishing rods, pay for a huge variety of conservation benefits — everything from fieldwork by professional biologists to refuges like Sauvie’s Island on the Columbia River. Without those (declining) sources of revenue, the future of conservation may look even more bleak than it already does. So what to do?

It’s hard to know where else that money is going to come from. The putatively eco-friendly outdoor recreationists — hikers, backpackers, skiers, rock climbers, alpinists, mountain bikers, sea kayakers, river rafters, wind surfers, birders, and so on — pay no comparable taxes or fees to those imposed on hunting and fishing. To be sure, recreationists sometimes pay trailhead fees (such as the Northwest Forest Pass), entrance fees to state parks or DNR land, or "sno-park" fees, but these only defray the costs of maintaining access. They certainly don’t cover the costs of conservation biologists, ecosystem restoration, or wildlife management.

So what’s left: An REI tax? Highers fees to park at trailheads?

Obviously, the first idea is a non-starter; and even access fees are extremely unpopular with users. One partial solution may be re-invigorating hunting and angling as pastimes, even though some progressives regard them as retrograde. (In fact, that may be one reason they’re in decline: they’re not just unfashionable in some circles, they’re downright suspect.) But whatever your beliefs about the ethics of hunting and fishing, there are meaningful benefits for ecosystem protection to consider.

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Those benefits include not only reliable revenue for conservation, but a legacy of wildlife protection that, in the Northwest, extends back at least as far as the creation of Olympic National Park — a treasure-trove of endemic species that was originally set aside to conserve Roosevelt elk for hunting. Today that ethos lives on in local watershed protection groups as well as in bigger fish like Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited.

But I’ll leave the last word to the latest issue of the Washington Monthly, which has a great article on the politics of hunting — and its potential to preserve open space and wildlife. Definitely worth a read:

This idea of public ownership became the intellectual foundation for America’s conservation movement a century ago, when commercial hunters had begun decimating buffalo herds and blasting snowy egrets with cannons in order to sell feathers for ladies’ hats. Theodore Roosevelt and a handful of other naturalists–most of them hunters–argued that wildlife belonged to the public and therefore could not be obliterated by business interests. "Public rights comes first and private interests second," Roosevelt wrote in 1905. "The conservation of wildlife and … all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method." He outlawed commercial hunting and promoted measures–such as bag limits and game seasons–to ensure that wildlife could be enjoyed by future generations.

In a reversal of the tragedy of the commons, the American conservation movement has been far more successful, both in garnering popular support and in saving species from extinction, than efforts in countries where a different mentality exists toward ownership of wildlife. Whereas America brought back the elk, antelope, and white-tailed deer, in Britain boars, beavers, and bears no longer roam. Today, however, this heritage faces a new challenge, unfathomable in the days of Penn or Roosevelt. As Todd Bogenschutz of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources told me, "Our forefathers made wildlife public, but they screwed another thing up. They should have made access to wildlife public."

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