Published in Economic Development
According to a Michigan Technological University study, the number of hunters in Michigan could plummet in the coming decades as fewer people pick up the sport and as existing participants age out. According to a Michigan Technological University study, the number of hunters in Michigan could plummet in the coming decades as fewer people pick up the sport and as existing participants age out. COURTESY PHOTO: MICHIGAN DNR

‘A NEW NORMAL’: Declining sportsmen’s dollars upend funding model for nature conservation, outdoor recreation

BY Sunday, February 02, 2020 04:20pm

Michigan’s outdoor recreation industry of today looks much differently than it did a generation ago. 

In an industry long dominated by the traditional hook-and-bullet pursuits, hunting and fishing participation peaked years ago in the state and has been slowly eroding ever since, mirroring national trends. At the same time, “non-consumptive sports” — hiking, cycling, bird watching and cross-country skiing and the like — that take advantage of Michigan’s natural attributes have grown in popularity, a reflection of a wide variety of societal, cultural and economic changes, according to researchers who track the sector. 

The problem: The decades-old system that enables many forms of outdoor recreation via the state Department of Natural Resources largely has not evolved. 

The broken national funding model is built on sportsmen’s license fees and federal excise tax revenues on their equipment. In Michigan, sportsmen and women help form a $11.2 billion industry, and pay millions in user fees for the privilege of pursuing their passions. However, the same cannot be said about the fastest growing group of participants in outdoor recreation, the non-consumptive users whose “quiet” pursuits also directly benefit from sportsmen’s dollars. 

Without a new economic model, the continued erosion in the numbers of hunters and anglers also threatens the state’s ability to access federal conservation funding, since the formula that apportions those dollars is tied to a state’s license sales and its ability to provide matching funds. The effect of any lost conservation funding will be felt beyond hunters and anglers because those dollars also support the management of nongame species and habitat improvement programs, putting the state’s ability to maintain the quality of its natural resources at risk. 

While sportsmen’s groups have in the past advocated raising license fees as a potential solution, the overwhelming evidence suggests a fundamental rethinking will be necessary to fix the broken funding model on a national basis. One change seems likely: As the base of payers funding conservation broadens, hunters and anglers will need to get used to having other voices at the decision-making table.

“What we’re doing right now is not sustainable,” said Alan Steinman, the director of Grand Valley State University’s Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon. “The state supposedly values its outdoor recreation so highly. We need to figure out how to preserve it and maintain it for the future and current generations.”

The effects of the unsustainable funding model are already being felt in Michigan and elsewhere. The Michigan DNR ceased all hiring and cancelled five wildlife projects last year, as Crain’s Detroit Business reported in October. Similarly, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources also stopped hiring and scaled back management projects, while the Colorado Parks and Wildlife eliminated “tens of millions of dollars” in expenses and cut various programs, according to reports. 

Boomers age out

As the population of hunters and anglers declines, a demographic shift is putting new pressures on state fish and wildlife programs and their ability to maintain the quality of the natural resources they’re charged with protecting. 

That’s because state fish and game departments are tied to federal funding models developed in the 1930s and 1950s that govern how the federal government apportions excise taxes collected on range of items, including firearms, ammunition, archery gear, boats and fishing tackle. 

According to research from the Association for Fish & Wildlife Agencies, state natural resources departments derive on average about 60 percent of their funding directly from hunting and fishing licenses or indirectly via federal excise taxes on sporting equipment. 

“Hunters, anglers and trappers have always been proud to pay for almost the entirety of fish and wildlife conservation here in Michigan,” said Amy Trotter, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the state’s largest conservation organization. 

“Between our license fees and the federal excise taxes on sportsmen’s gear, we are pretty much funding a lot of the DNR’s wildlife and fisheries division, as well as a good portion of the law division,” Trotter said. “That has always historically been enough.”

But the shift away from hunting and fishing suggests basing conservation solely on the backs of those participants may not provide enough revenue to support related programs and non-consumptive outdoor recreational uses for much longer. 

According to a pair of studies involving researchers at Houghton-based Michigan Technological University, the aging of the Baby Boomer generation poses a large threat to the sustainability of the existing funding model for outdoor recreation. Under worst-case scenarios, researchers determined that by 2035, the number of in-state anglers could fall 11.3 percent while the hunting population could plummet by one-third when compared to their peaks in 2009 and 1998, respectively. 

The Michigan Tech reports found that hunting and fishing participants will continue to skew older as the Baby Boomer bubble retires and then quickly ages out of the sports: Participation in fishing “declines dramatically after age 67,” while deer hunting participation “drop(s) off precipitously” around age 70 for males. 

“The North American Model of wildlife management was constructed to govern the public ownership of wildlife and serve traditional consumptive users who bore the responsibility of funding state agencies through hunting, fishing, and trapping license fees,” Michigan Tech and DNR researchers wrote in their 2016 report. “However, societal changes throughout the 21st century have altered the social context under which most citizens live, consequently leading to decreasing participation in hunting, fishing, and many outdoor recreational activities. 

“The response by many state agencies has been to focus resources on recruitment and retention efforts to try and boost participation rates. Our research suggests that it is unlikely these efforts will make up for the projected declines in hunter numbers during the next 20 years.”

Shifting mix

While the overall ranks of people participating in outdoor recreation continues to grow, participants in the non-consumptive sports lack direct and indirect funding mechanisms to support nature conservation. Unlike hunters and anglers, hikers and bird watchers pay no license fee to participate in their pursuits. 

That’s why participants in many forms of outdoor recreation, including the non-consumptive activities that are growing in popularity among Michigan residents, could feel the effects if sportsmen-related funding continues to dwindle. 

While fewer people hunt or fish, 63 percent of the state’s residents participate annually in outdoor recreation, higher than the national average of 50 percent for people age 6 and older, according to the Outdoor Industry Association

In the 2018 Michigan Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan prepared for the DNR, Public Sector Consultants determined participation to be highest for passive activities such as relaxing outdoors or walking outdoors, which about three-quarters of residents said they enjoyed. 

Among more active types of participation, 67 percent of respondents said they visited parks and playgrounds; 36 percent participated in wildlife viewing and/or photography, including bird watching; 34 percent went hiking or backpacking; and 32 percent went canoeing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, or windsurfing. 

Research on trends in outdoor recreation suggests that non-consumptive “nature-based” activities will continue to grow in popularity for the next several decades, as traditional fishing and hunting stays flat on a per capita basis or declines. 

In a seminal 2012 report by scientists at the U.S. Forest Service that projected outdoor recreation trends out to the year 2060, researchers noted a changing mix of preferences shifting toward growth in observational activities, “especially viewing, photographing and otherwise appreciating nature.”

Scientist H. Ken Cordell wrote in the Forest Service report: “What people now choose to do for outdoor recreation is very noticeably different from choices made by and available to previous generations of Americans. The mix of outdoor activities and their relative popularity are different now than at any time in the past. For example, fishing and hunting are often thought of as widely popular, ‘traditional’ outdoor activities. While still somewhat popular, participation in these activities generally has been declining, and they are being replaced by other activities, such as wildlife or bird watching and photography.”

User fee model

Despite the changing landscape in outdoor recreation, hunters and anglers still contributed an estimated $11.2 billion in economic activity in Michigan and account for 171,000 jobs, according to a 2019 study that researchers at the Michigan State University Eli Broad College of Business compiled for MUCC. 

A sprawling 20-county region in south-central Michigan that includes Kent, Newaygo, Ionia, Mecosta, Montcalm and Barry counties derived $3.2 billion in economic activity from hunting and fishing, while the economic impact in a five-county region along Lake Michigan from Muskegon to the border with Indiana reached $1 billion, the study’s authors wrote. 

While their numbers have declined, hunters and anglers continue to be a major revenue source for the Department of Natural Resources, the agency charged with overseeing the management of the state’s fisheries, wildlife, parks, trails and other programs. 

DNR Public Information Officer Ed Golder provided various agency data and research for this report, but did not return multiple messages requesting an interview with department executives and with Director Daniel Eichinger. 

For the 2020 fiscal year, the largest single revenue source in the DNR’s budget came from hunting and fishing licenses, which amount to about 20 percent of the agency’s overall funding. Federal excise taxes related to the sale of hunting and fishing equipment account for another 7 percent of the agency’s $438.7 million budget. Just 11 percent of the budget comes from state General Fund/General Purpose dollars. 

Sportsmen’s license fees are the primary source of revenue for the Game and Fish Protection Fund, a restricted fund that pays for wildlife and fisheries management — ensuring game and non-game populations are healthy and in-check — and the enforcement of fish and game laws. 

Without new funding mechanisms, fewer hunters and anglers will translate into a declining budget for the DNR at a time when nature-based recreational activities are projected to become increasingly popular over the next generation. 

Trotter of MUCC also expressed concern that one day the state will not generate enough money from license fees to meet the matching funds required to get its full allocation of federal funding. 

For every dollar that Michigan raises, it receives $3 in federal conservation funds, including those derived from excise taxes on hunting, fishing and boating equipment, up to the maximum allocation. 

“If license dollars continue to decline, there may be a day when we leave money on the table — not that the federal government will chop it, but we can’t raise the state share to receive all the federal dollars we qualify for,” Trotter said. “We’re not there yet, but those years could be approaching. … Someday that might be a reality we face.”

Filling the funnel

How to fix that broken funding model remains an open question for advocates, as well as scientists and natural resource managers who help ensure the quality of outdoor recreation experiences for the state’s residents.

For their part, hunting and angling groups are grappling with the need to broaden the base of payers who provide funding for fisheries and wildlife conservation. 

“My members are really still struggling with how to engage the non-consumptive, quiet sports,” Trotter said. “Part of our pride in paying for (conservation) is also the ability to have a strong voice in how things are managed. When you invite more people to the table, your voice may or may not be as strong. We’re still struggling with that. I don’t think any ideas are off the table.”

The DNR is unlikely to raise sufficient future revenues on the backs of sportsmen and women through license fee increases, which have been a tough sell with the state Legislature. 

The most recent fee increase took place in 2013 after a protracted legislative battle and brought in about $20 million in new revenue, according to reports at that time. Before that, the most recent license fee adjustment took place in 1997.

Trotter said hunters could be willing to pay more, and are unlikely to be dissuaded from participating by higher license fees. 

“When you look at traditional economic trends, usually a higher price means lower demand, but pretty much if you’re a hunter, you’re a hunter,” she said. “You’re going to continue to do that as long as you’re able.”

For now, MUCC has focused on filling the top of the funnel with new participants, particularly new hunters. Along those lines, the group worked with the DNR to expand opportunities for children to get involved in the sport.

The Mentored Youth Hunting Program offers a $7.50 package license that allows children under the age of 10 to hunt for turkey, deer and small game; trap furbearers; and fish for any species. Participants must hunt with a parent or another adult and do not need to have completed a hunter safety course. Meanwhile, the Apprentice Hunting Program pairs youths age 10 or older with an accompanying adult.

“The idea there is to give them the bug while they’re young and hopefully get them hooked on participating,” Trotter said. “We’ve made lots of changes over the years, and it will be interesting to see long term how those pan out.”

Another area of focus for MUCC is on diversifying the existing hunting and fishing community by finding ways to “make a fisherman a hunter,” for example.

“Maybe you’re not getting more people, but they’re more diversified in their activities,” Trotter said. “From a funding standpoint, one person buying two licenses or two people buying one license, it’s pretty much the same revenue. I think you’ll see, in the future, a lot more of that cross marketing and encouraging people to try different things rather than specialize in just one activity.”

Even so, Trotter recognizes that tactic coupled with attracting and retaining youth hunters is unlikely to provide enough new participants to make up for the Baby Boomers aging out of the sport.

“At the end of the day, there’s going to eventually be a new normal. The Boomer population is that bubble that we’re seeing age out,” Trotter said. “There will eventually be a new normal reset.”

New models

Policy watchers say broadening the state’s Recreation Passport or adopting a similar model for other forms of recreation could provide sustainable funding to support resource conservation and management for the increasingly popular “nature-based” activities like birding, wildlife photography or just observing nature. 

The Recreation Passport gives drivers access to state parks and boating access sites by paying an additional fee on their vehicle registrations.

GVSU’s Steinman said expanding the model to support additional forms of outdoor recreation could make sense, but he questions whether Lansing has the political will to consider new revenue options. 

“When you’re looking at the funding streams, in order to maintain these kinds of recreational activities — on which a lot of Michigan’s outdoors has historically been based — we’re going to need to be more creative than we’ve been in the past,” Steinman said. 

The move to broaden the base of outdoor recreation participants who pay for conservation could make sense: Taken as a whole, the outdoor recreation industry in Michigan generates $26.6 billion in consumer spending annually and $7.5 billion in wages and salaries, contributing to 232,000 direct jobs, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. 

Leveraging that economic power formed the basis of the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry’s creation last year within the DNR and in partnership with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC). 

Aside from establishing new funding models, driving awareness about the industry in Michigan and the outdoor recreation opportunities that can be found in the state could help fill the void from Baby Boomers aging out of hunting and fishing, said Brad Garmon, the director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry. 

“There’s a ton of hand-wringing about declining hunting and fishing numbers and there’s a lot of concern about that,” Garmon said. “(But) there is no shortage of people going outside to recreate. In fact, there are a lot of places where it’s growing so fast that we can’t keep up with it and use pressure is incredible. We’re wringing our hands on one end, and I think the trick is, we’re not grasping and taking advantage of the opportunities that those changing numbers also present.” 

For her part, Trotter at MUCC cited opportunities to get more general public support and tax dollars for management issues of greatest concern, such as disease and invasive species. 

About 10 percent of the DNR’s 2020 budget comes from the state General Fund, including a $2.3 million appropriation for the wildlife division to support chronic wasting disease (CWD) research in deer and an annual $5 million appropriation for invasive species prevention and control. 

“There’s not a person in Michigan that doesn’t get pretty excited about seeing deer,” Trotter said. “A disease like chronic wasting disease or tuberculosis that can impact the population — we believe the management of those diseases, the surveillance, the research should be borne by everybody, not just hunters. As well as for invasive species. … Those are things we believe society should be helping pay for.”

Finding partners

Trotter also believes that partnerships with various nonprofits or the private sector will play a more important role in funding conservation and management efforts in the years ahead.

“The DNR can’t be the only one working on habitat. They’re going to have to do more things to rely on partner groups, whether it’s some of the species-specific groups like Pheasants Forever or Ducks Unlimited, or whether it’s groups with a lot of members like MUCC,” she said. 

Those partnerships could include programs such as MUCC’s lauded “On The Ground” initiative that leverages grant funding from the DNR and the club’s access to member volunteers. Through the initiative, MUCC partners with various sportsmen’s groups, media and businesses for volunteers who work directly on habitat programs. 

In the current fiscal year, the projects have included native wildlife and pollinator habitat improvement at the Waterloo Recreation Area in Chelsea, native shrub planting in the Traverse City State Forest and invasive species removal at Rose Lake State Game Area in East Lansing. 

“These are partnership models where we’re co-funding staff and a program to accomplish the same goals that maybe used to be accomplished by the agency itself,” Trotter said. “I think we’re going to see a lot more collaborations in those efforts going into the future. It’s just a different model of conservation. 

“For our members, they’re not open to all partnerships, but certainly where there’s the focus on the resource and habitat, that’s the area we can all get together and work together.”

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