The recent rush by gun enthusiasts to buy firearms could have a surprising consequence: millions more dollars to protect pheasants, deer and other wildlife.
A 75-year-old program finances wildlife projects with revenue collected from a federal excise taxes on firearms. The Wildlife Restoration Fund has sent billions of dollars to states over the years, helping them buy, develop and maintain land for wildlife management.
Now, at a time of major belt-tightening for state environmental programs, the surge in gun sales across the U.S., spurred by fears of a legislative crackdown on some firearms, represents one bright spot for wildlife officials.
The excise tax on pistols and revolvers is set at 10 percent, while other firearms, shells or cartridges are taxed at 11 percent. Total collections in 2012 were more than $555 million, up from $388 million during the previous year, following two years of declining revenue, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. This year, amid the recent surge in gun sales after the Connecticut school shootings, officials expect that number to spike even higher.
The program has helped states buy some 4 million acres while managing a total of nearly 40 million under agreements with other landowners, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the program with the Department of the Interior. In the Great Plains, for instance, the program has funded the planting of trees and shrubs that provide cover for pheasants and quail during winter storms. And it has protected big game animals living on rangelands in the North and West, along with ducks and geese that depend upon wetlands.
In absolute dollars, Texas, Alaska, Pennsylvania, Michigan and California were the top beneficiaries of the fund in 2012, according to figures provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. More than $371 million was allocated across the country.
“It's a great concept,” said Dan Yparraguirre, a deputy director at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which received almost $10 million for wildlife, along with more than $2 million for hunter education in 2012. “It's an important part of our agency's annual budget.”
Yparraguirre said the money benefits 20 wildlife restoration areas in the state.
If the collections spike too high, however, some of wildlife funds may be lost. That's because some states may not be able to afford the required 25 percent matching contribution.
“It's one of those good news bad news types of things,” Yparraguirre said.
Despite its independent revenue stream, the fund is still subject to 5 percent cuts under sequestration, amid Congress' failure to reach a budget deal. That would shave $21 million off the $413 million expected allocation this year, according to the Office of Management and Budget. It is unclear what will happen to the sequestered money, the Congressional Research Service said. It may become available in later years.