Pittman-Robertson Act and wildlife funding explained, and why it is important during COVID-19

The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, also commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, has been in place since 1937 and is a key funding source for wildlife management, habitat, conservation and hunter education programs for state wildlife agencies. If adjusted for inflation, an equivalent of $18.8 billion has been distributed under the act since its introduction. The allocation of these federal funds to each state is based upon a formula which includes factors for the state’s land and water areas, population, and the number of hunting licenses sold each year. There is also separate funding provided for wildlife program administration, as well as grants, which helps to distribute the funds more fairly and keep smaller states with less hunting support from being excluded. The Act is largely supported by outdoor sportsmen and sports-ladies.

So where does the funding come from? Have you ever checked your receipt from your local sporting goods store and noticed the tax added on? Nope, not unless someone is scamming you. Pittman-Robertson funds come from an excise tax, meaning the tax is paid by the manufacturer, importer, or producer for each item before it gets to the consumer. It is a consistent tax across all states, and it is factored into the sale price of the item you’re buying. There is no tax added at point of purchase. It is levied on manufacturers that produce more than 50 units per year, and second-hand transfers of items like firearms are generally excluded from the tax. It is derived from specific hunting and firearm-related equipment, and it can be little tricky to know exactly how much tax your purchase supports. So I’ve done the research and provided a full breakdown of what is and isn’t taxed:

What is actually taxed:

  • 11% of sale price for bows;
  • 11% of sale price of broadheads, field points, quivers, bow sights, arrow rests, stabilizers, wrist slings, strings, string silencers, or any other piece of equipment that would be physically attached to a bow;
  • $0.53 per arrow (This rate is as of 2020. The rate per arrow increases each year with the annual IRS determination of inflation);
  • 10% of sale price on pistols;
  • 11% of sale of firearms other than pistols;
  • 11% of sale price of ammunition;
  • Manufactured parts of firearms, pistols, bows, or ammunition purchased unassembled, taxed at the same rate at which the complete piece is taxed.

What is not taxed:

  • Bows under 30 lb draw;
  • Bow cases, slings, hangers, racks;
  • Bow hand releases;
  • Bow targets and accessories;
  • Armguards, accessory belts, finger tabs, shooting gloves;
  • Arrow components: Nocks, inserts, vanes, other fletching;
  • Arrow saws, fletching jigs, other arrow tools;
  • String wax;
  • Arrows under 18″ length, or otherwise designed for children;
  • Full natural wood arrows;
  • Firearms or ammunition purchased by any military defense department;
  • Firearm suppressors, fully automatic firearms, or other firearm devices which require federal tax stamps;
  • Fishing gear subject to the Dingell-Johnson Act tax
  • Any equipment, apparel, supplies, gear, tools, food, service or miscellaneous item not listed in the “What is actually taxed” column above. Even if the item is generally associated (or specifically marketed) towards outdoor recreation or hunting.

For Pittman-Robertson annual revenue, you could roughly state that about one-third of revenue comes from the sale of ammunition, one-third comes from sale of long guns, and about one-quarter comes from the sale of pistols. Archery equipment accounts for about eight percent. Over the last fifteen years of so, funding has been allocated at an approximate rate of 17% going to basic hunters education and safety programs, and 83% going to wildlife management. For state distribution, remember that the factors are the state’s land and water area, population, and the number of hunting licenses sold. In 2019, the states that received the highest dollar distribution from the Pittman-Robertson Act were Texas ($31M), Alaska ($28M), and Pennsylvania ($24M). Inversely, the states receiving the least dollars in 2019 were Delware, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. They all received about $4M each. No state may receive less than o.5% or more than 5% of the annual funding. It should also be noted that the territories of American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and Virgin Islands also receive funding under the Pittman-Robertson Act, and they were granted $1M-$2M each in 2019. These U.S. territories do not receive distribution by the same formula as the U.S. states, but rather a set percentage set by statute.

So why is this especially important right now during the COVID-19 pandemic? The Pittman-Robertson Act funding provides up to 75% (this value is limited by the Act) of a state’s funds for specific projects. The states have to make up the remaining 25%, which usually comes from hunting license revenue. The Act also allocates separate funding for conservation grants, which may provide full funding for a project, and also may be split among multiple states which apply for the grant in partnership. This means that Pittman-Robertson acts can provide the lions share of funding for a state’s wildlife management, while states still need to supplement with their hunting tag revenue. With the current pandemic situation, many states have put restrictions on spring hunting opportunities such as bear and turkey, and have further restricted non-resident hunters traveling in from out of state to hunt. It is too early to tell what impact this will cause to conservation funding, especially if there are travel restrictions that continue later into the fall. Non-resident hunters can provide a significant portion of the state’s hunting tag revenue, not to mention the economic stimulus of bringing out-of-state dollars to inject small businesses in rural communities. But even though state tag revenue may be down in 2020, there may be a positive funding swing due to the surge in firearm sales. The FBI has estimated that gun sales have nearly doubled in March and April 2020 compared to the previous year. These sales have mainly been for perceived self-defense concerns. Pittman-Robertson Act funds don’t differentiate for “intent”, so regardless of the purchaser’s motivation, the tax revenue still goes towards conservation as lined out by law. But as a consumer, hunter, or conservationist, you can make informed decisions on where you put your dollars.