What is Pittman-Robertson?

Often you will hear hunters talk about Pittman-Robertson and how much hunters give to conservation efforts through licenses, fees, excise taxes, etc.  In fact, you’ve heard that from me before.  So, as we continue to briefly look at the North American Wildlife Conservation Model, today, we look at Pittman-Robertson.

Pittman-Robertson is the common name for the Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937.  It was sponsored by Senator Key Pittman of Nevada (D) and Representative Willis Robertson of Virginia (D).  This piece of legislation collects an 11% excise tax on guns, ammunition and archery equipment and places it into an account for several uses:

·      Administration of the program

·      Multi-state conservation grant program

·      Hunter education enhancements

·      Anything left over after a certain time period automatically goes to migratory bird programs

Pittman-Robertson money cannot be re-appropriated by the states, it must be used to fund approved conservation projects.  According to Dr. Scott Shalaway, “Funds are distributed to the states based on a formula that takes into account each state’s land and water area and the number of paid hunting/fishing license holders. This insures that larger, sparsely populated, western states can compete for funds fairly with smaller, more densely populated eastern states.”  The money does not have to go specifically to game animals, but any conservation project deemed necessary by the state wildlife agency. 

In summary, hunters (and other archery and firearm enthusiasts) don’t just pay for the conservation and preservation of game animals that they hunt, but habitat improvement for all species and many projects directly aimed at non-game animals.  Pittman-Robertson dollars are in addition to funds received from hunting licenses and tags, wildlife habitat stamps and other programs and fees necessary to hunt. 

Find out more directly at the USFWS site.

An Introduction to the North American Wildlife Conservation Model

This is the first of several articles I will post on the North American Model. 


Whenever I end up talking about hunting with a non-hunter, I usually hear one of two comments that lead me into talking about the North American Wildlife Conservation Model. I either hear: (1) “but there used to be so many more animals here before the white hunter” or (2) “It seems like I see a lot more deer than I used to.” Depending on whether they’re referring to the number of species or the number of total animals, the first could be either true or false. Either way, it opens the door to the conversation. The second statement is absolutely true and it’s because of the North American Model. 

So, what is the North American Wildlife Conservation Model?

The North American Model has its roots in an 1842 Supreme Court decision, Martin v. Waddell that created “The Public Trust Doctrine.”[1] This means that wildlife is a public resource and animals are not owned by individual landowners. This was in stark contrast to the situation in Europe, where only the wealthy owned land, the landowners owned the wildlife on their property and therefore only the wealthy could hunt. With a few notable exceptions, this is still true in Europe today. Therefore, The Public Trust Doctrine made hunting available to all Americans in good standing.

As the 19th century went on, many species became endangered or extinct. The American Bison, or buffalo as its commonly known, is the best-known example. There are many reasons this happened, as domestic cattle brought diseases, loss of habitat as people and domestic animals moved west, market hunting by both whites and natives, as well as several other smaller factors [2]. Not surprisingly, many conservation organizations started at the same time, such as The Boone and Crockett Club formed in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt.  Boone and Crockett are known for creating the idea of fair chase hunting, an ethical code by which all hunters should abide. For further information on fair chase hunting, Jim Posewitz’s Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting is a short, but fantastic resource.

The conservation movement and ethic continued to evolve into the 20th century with landmark legislation like The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 (aka Pittman-Robertson), which placed an 11% excise tax on all archery and firearm equipment. This was followed by The Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act of 1950 (aka Dingell-Johnson), which is even wider in scope for marine life and fisheries. The excise tax even goes as far as gasoline at boat docks. I will write more on these two landmark pieces of legislation in the near future.

Today, we recognize seven core tenets of the North American Wildlife Conservation Model [3]:

1.     Wildlife is a public trust resource. Wildlife is owned by no one until it is physically possessed.

2.     Market hunting is illegal. It is illegal to buy and sell meat and parts of game and non-game species. If you’ve had venison or elk at a restaurant, it was either imported or raised on a game farm. If you had wild pig, it was captured and then transported alive to a USDA approved facility where it was butchered. 

3.     Allocation of wildlife by law. State wildlife agencies determine the number of animals to be harvested, not market pressure.

4.     Wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose. Meat (or in some cases fur) must be harvested from the animal.

5.     Wildlife species are considered an international resource. Many animals, especially birds, are migratory and do not recognize human political borders. This is why the US and Canada (especially) work together on many issues surrounding migratory animals.

6.     Science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policy. State wildlife agencies employ many scientists to determine how to properly use Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson money for their state. 

7.     The democracy of hunting. Anyone in good standing can legally hunt in America. One does not need to be wealthy or own land in order to participate in hunting, fishing or trapping.

The North American Model is the most successful in the world but it is not without problems. It has been so successful at recovering some species that in spite of human encroachment, populations have grown tremendously. It is now believed that there are more white tail deer in America than at the time of European contact. There are approximately 1.5 million car accidents every year caused by deer leading to around 200 deaths, 10,000 injuries and higher car insurance premiums [4]. Deer, turkeys and other animals are often considered pests and nuisances in suburban areas where they wander into people’s backyards to eat out of gardens and flower beds. This leads to issues like Ann Arbor, Michigan is facing right now in regards to sterilization and culling, but has also opened up bow hunting to many urban and suburban hunters (more on this at a later time as well). 

In conclusion, we have something to be very proud of in the North American Model. It’s something that has not only been wildly successful but has historically been bi-partisan as well. Every day sportsmen contribute over $3,000,000 to wildlife conservation efforts through taxes, licenses and fees [5]. However, we cannot rest on our laurels, we must continue to support the land and wildlife we love if there is any hope of it being here for future generations.


[1] Wildlife.org

[2] MeatEater podcast

[3] Colorado Hunter Education Manual, which sourced from an article from New Hampshire Wildlife Journal by Eric Aldrich

[4] Culture of Safety

[5] Colorado Hunter Education Manual