As the federal government shutdown that began October 1 stretches into its second week, it is now threatening the beginning of hunting and fishing seasons, and hunters, fishers, and sportsmen’s groups aren’t taking that news quietly.
As major hunting seasons begin across the country, seven sportsmen organizations joined on a conference call Monday to call on Congress to end the shutdown, which has closed 329 federal wildlife refuges to hunting and more than 270 to fishing. More than 35 million Americans hunted in 2011, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey, and of those, more than half will hunt or fish on public lands at some point in their lives, Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said on the call.
“Sportsmen and women in this country, we have a very financial and very personal stake in this federal budget discussion,” Dr. Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said. “Frankly, I think that Congress’ failure to act is really a slap in the face to all of us in the country and in particular to 37 million hunters and anglers.”
For some hunters and fishers, that means the loss of a basic yearly ritual: hunting with family or friends for deer, waterfowl, or other animals. For others, it means the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: in states like Colorado or New Mexico, big game hunting licenses can take more than a decade to get, meaning hunters who finally got a license but miss this season may have to wait years for another chance, if another ever comes. For fishers, it means the closure of public lakes, rivers, and boat ramps maintained by federal authorities.
But the major effect is on local communities, small business, and people who depend on hunting and fishing for their livelihoods. The wildlife-related recreation economy is huge: in 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that it amounted to $144 billion annually. That economy is made up of hunters and fishers, birdwatchers and environmental enthusiasts, but also of hunting guides who make their living during major hunting seasons. It includes retailers and businesses that depend on $86 billion in direct hunting- and fishing-related sales. Small communities that have cropped up around public lands depend on revenues generated by hunting- and fishing-related tourism during this time of year. All of that is jeopardized by the shutdown.
“These three months of hunting season are like Christmas to a lot of these rural communities,” Land Tawnyey, the executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said. “They make all their money in three months. It’s vitally important to their economy.” Tawney said he has already canceled hunts on public lands that would have otherwise taken place, and he’s not alone: hunting trips across the country are facing the effects of the shutdown.
Hunters and fishers also generate more than $1.5 billion in revenues each year through licenses. Since most of those are processed at the state level, they shouldn’t be affected by a shutdown. But some licenses, for waterfowl and other species, are done federally and could be impacted. States could also see a drop in license revenue if hunters stay home because they can’t access public lands, Williams said.
The shutdown is also killing environmental conservation efforts.
And that’s not all: the shutdown is also hampering environment conservation and habitat maintenance efforts on federal lands, as well as efforts to protect endangered species on federal lands.
National Wildlife Refuges, comprised of more than 150 million acres of public land, “are some of the most highly-managed lands in the country,” Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said. This time of year, refuges host hunts of everything from waterfowl to rabbits and small animals to large game. Those hunts come alongside habitat-maintenance and conservation efforts meant to help “mimic some of the natural processes we’ve changed,” she said. Right now, “a lot of the critical habitat work isn’t being done.”
“One of the big factors that we’re seeing is that habitat projects for wildlife that are long-term are being shut down,” Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation said. “Some of these projects are time-sensitive. They need to be done in the fall. They may not occur this year at all, or they may have to be put off and not done. Those our critical to some of our wildlife species, especially some of our big game animals.”
These industries have already faced the axe from budget cuts and sequestration, as environmental conservation efforts important to hunters and fishers faced budget cuts in recent years, including under sequestration at the beginning of 2013. Sequestration included a 17 percent cut to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Williams said, and the most recent House Republican budget plan includes a 27 percent cut to the service’s budget and includes no funding for land, water, wetland, or wildlife conservation grants. “We’re tired of non-proportional cuts to national resource interests,” he said.
If the government and those lands don’t re-open soon, all of that may be lost, since there’s no delaying hunting season. “Hunting season ends when it ends, when the animals move,” Fosburgh said. If the shutdown doesn’t end before then, there’s no bringing back everything it has already cost America’s hunters and fishers — or the environment and communities that depend on them.