With hunting in decline across state, conservation funds in jeopardy

With hunting in decline across state, conservation funds in jeopardy

Dylan Ferreira, left, and Jenny Kilburn, both employees of the RIDEM Division of Fish and Wildlife, speak to youth during a recent Youth Waterfowl Mentored Hunt Training Day. The free program is one of many recruitment efforts the state has to get young people interested in the sport.

CUMBERLAND – When Cumberland resident Tony Alves started hunting 50 years ago, he often came across other hunters searching for deer and turkey in the woods of Rhode Island.

These days, the former president of the Cumberland Beagle Club said, the sport is safer than it used to be, but that hasn’t stopped present-day hunters from getting pulled away by the distractions of modern life.

“Unfortunately I don’t see a lot of hunters in the woods,” he told The Valley Breeze. “Years past, I would come across one or two hunters in the woods, but times have changed, so either people are working and don’t have recreation time, or maybe there’s less hunters.”

Alves and his son, Matt, are both active hunters, but according to data gathered by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, they’re part of a declining trend. From 2000 to 2017, the number of licensed hunters living in Rhode Island fell from 10,530 to 6,291, a 40 percent drop. The number of deer permits purchased by hunters showed a similar drop, from 17,827 in 2000 to 14,391 in 2017.

That’s concerning news for anyone involved with wildlife conservation, according to Dylan Ferreira, senior wildlife biologist for the RIDEM Division of Fish and Wildlife. In 1937, Congress passed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, ensuring that the vast majority of state conservation efforts are funded through hunting and fishing activities and firearms sales. Better known as the Pittman-Robertson Act for its sponsors, the law places an 11 percent federal excise tax on long guns and ammunition and a 10 percent tax on handguns, earmarking the proceeds for conservation and hunter education.

“You have a pot of money that’s then distributed to the state and the state agencies from the federal government,” Ferreira explained.

Interest in shooting sports and firearms sales have remained strong, but the decline in hunters impacts the amount of money Rhode Island is eligible to receive, he said. Pittman-Robertson funds are distributed in part based on the number of licensed hunters in the state, so states with more hunters can receive more funds. On top of that, states are required to provide a 25 percent match, funds primarily generated through license and permitting fees for hunting and fishing.

The end result is that small states such as Rhode Island, which don’t generate as much income as larger states with active hunting populations, are sometimes limited in how much they can match and have to turn away federal funds.

“Essentially, we’re leaving money at the table that we’re not using, so it just goes back to the federal government,” said Ferreira.

Pittman-Robertson funds are the primary driver of conservation programs in Rhode Island. This year, the state purchased 103 acres abutting Glocester’s Durfee Hill Management Area for just over $350,000 and another 16 acres abutting Burrillville’s Round Top Management area for $120,000, all with federal and state conservation funds. The act also funds conservation programs for game and non-game species, including the threatened New England Cottontail. Once the primary rabbit species in Rhode Island, the New England Cottontail has since been replaced by the more common Eastern Cottontail and fallen prey to development and lack of new forest growth.

“With a lot of the urbanization of Rhode Island and the fire management that we have, there’s just less and less habitat for these rabbits,” said Ferreira.

In addition to funding conservation programs, he said, deer hunting can actually benefit the environment by helping to keep the state’s thriving deer population in check. Though it might be difficult for someone outside the hunting community to understand, he said, permitted hunting is all part of a managed conservation program statewide.

“I think that’s one of the main things we have to kind of overcome, is it’s hard for someone who’s not intimately involved in the process to think that someone who’s hunting and maybe harvesting a deer or two deer a year is actually benefitting deer in general and other species.”

That’s one of the reasons the state offers a long list of hunter education programs, also funded by the Pittman-Robertson Act. In addition to the basic course required to get a hunting license, the Division of Fish and Wildlife offers workshops on everything from marksmanship to wild game cooking, most of them free of charge.

Young people aren’t hunting much

One of the areas of focus is educating young hunters ages 12 to 14. According to Michael DiPietro, the state’s hunter safety education coordinator, many teenagers today don’t have a family background in hunting, so the free programs allow potential new hunters to try out the sport.

“Not every kid today has a family member who is into hunting to mentor them and show them the way,” he said.

DiPietro, a Hopkinton resident and longtime hunter, spent many years as a volunteer hunter safety instructor and environmental police officer before taking over the position this year. Like Alves, he described hunting as a rite of passage in his family. His own son got his first hunting license just after his 12th birthday, but now, at 16, rarely has the time to head out into the woods.

“He plays sports, he plays football, he wrestles and runs track,” said DiPietro. “He doesn’t have a lot of time for hunting. He hasn’t taken it to this point as seriously as I would’ve liked, but that’s because he’s distracted with other things.”

The number of youth hunters in Rhode Island has fluctuated over the years, but the general trend is similar to hunting licenses overall. In 2009, the number of licensed hunters ages 12 to 14 peaked at a five-year high of 183 before dropping to just 78 in 2017. According to DiPietro, that’s concerning, since today’s young hunters are tomorrow’s adult hunting population.

Some bright spots

There are a few bright spots for hunting in Rhode Island. Though the number of hunters has been in near-constant decline for the past 20 years, fee increases and restructuring in the RIDEM’s license and permitting system means that the total amount of funds collected from hunting and fishing activities remains more or less steady. In 2017, those activities brought in close to $1.1 million, forming the 25 percent match required by the Pittman-Robertson Act.

The decline also appears to be reversing. In 2018, licensed hunters saw their first population growth in six years, increasing to 7,564 hunters from 6,291 in 2017. Youth hunting was also up last year, with 91 hunters compared with 78 the year before.

It’s too early to tell if the increase will continue, but both DiPietro and Ferreira speculated it might be due to the popularity of the state’s new online resources. Hunters can now apply for licenses and take the basic hunter education course online, activities that previously required visiting a vendor or sitting for several hours of classwork.

“The bottom line is, we want to get people involved with hunting and to get more hunting licenses,” said DiPietro.

A new way to conservation?

With fewer hunters in the general population, Ferreira questioned whether a new model might eventually be developed to replace some of the lost conservation funds. Activities such as hiking, biking and birding are growing in popularity and bring large numbers of users to state management areas without generating any funds. Some day, he said, other outdoor industries may have to step up if their customers expect to continue benefitting from state programs and lands.

“I always think that conservation will be here. I always think we’ll have capable people managing. I just don’t know how and if the funding will change,” he said.

Dylan Ferreira, senior wildlife biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Division of Fish and Wildlife, measures the antlers on a male deer harvested at Glocester’s Durfee Hill Management Area.
Ethan Osenkowski of Coventry takes aim at a flying clay target during a recent Youth Waterfowl Mentored Hunt Training Day hosted by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management at the Great Swamp Shooting Range in West Kingston. The event was supported by hunter education funds from the Pittman-Robertson Act.