Sportsmen’s program marks 75 years of conservation success

By Rick Cables

As the sun rises this morning, wingshooters are fanning out across the Colorado prairie, eager to test their skill against fast-flying doves. Up in the mountains, camouflaged bow hunters are bugling to call in lovelorn bull elk. 

Dove and elk are just two of the many hunting opportunities that draw hunters here from around the world every fall. Colorado also lures thousands of tourists each year to gawk at the elk herds outside Estes Park, to photograph moose in the Kawuneeche Valley, or to marvel at flights of migrating sandhill cranes wheeling in front of the Sangre de Cristos. For those of us fortunate to live here, today’s abundant wildlife feels like a birthright. 

It wasn’t always so.

During the late-19th and early-20th centuries, many species of Colorado wildlife were gone or seriously reduced in numbers. Coloradans recognized early on that unregulated hunting and habitat destruction threatened wildlife populations.

In 1881, the Legislature approved construction of the state’s first fish hatchery. By the Dust Bowl era, Colorado’s wildlife programs were already self-funded, but tight budgeting limited the focus to law enforcement rather than conservation.

Then on Sept. 2, 1937, President Roosevelt signed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which added a 10 percent manufacturers’ excise tax on rifles, shotguns, ammunition and archery equipment.

Also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, this law distributes revenues to states as a permanent appropriation, according to a state’s size and the number of hunting licenses sold.

In a bit of inspired foresight, lawmakers required states to pass their own laws that protected these monies, as well as all wildlife license revenues, from being diverted to any use other than wildlife conservation.

Congress strengthened this user-pay, public-benefit system in 1950 by passing the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act, co-sponsored by Colorado Sen. Edwin Johnson and Michigan Rep. John Dingell, Sr.

The payoff has been astounding. Since its inception 75 years ago, the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration program has routed $13 billion to fish and wildlife conservation, more than any other single effort in American history. PR-DJ, as it’s now known, is recognized as a fundamental component of our system of conservation funding. 

What has Colorado done with the $340 million we’ve received? In the early years, wildlife managers used this funding to lay the foundations of our state wildlife area system.

PR-DJ money gave a big boost to our big-game restoration efforts, which have succeeded spectacularly. Colorado now has the largest mule deer and elk herds in the country. PR-DJ funds supported Colorado recovery efforts for two iconic birds of prey, the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, which are now off the federal endangered species list.

In short, PR-DJ has fueled remarkable wildlife conservation achievements — and has boosted our wildlife recreation economy, which generates $3 billion in economic activity every year.

But this conservation program is more than simply a pass-through funding program. For three-quarters of a century, it has sustained a cooperative partnership among industry, sportsmen, boaters, recreational shooters, the federal government and the 50 states that has produced the most successful model of fish and wildlife management in the world.

That’s certainly worth celebrating.

In an age of increasing polarization, this nonpartisan conservation effort is a great example of how working together to achieve important goals brings out the best in us.

Rick Cables is the director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.


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