West Virginians enjoy good hunting today because hunters three-quarters of a century ago decided to place a tax on themselves.
Under the sportsmen-initiated Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, every time guns, bows, ammunition or arrows get purchased, a 10 percent federal excise tax gets paid. The feds send the money to the states for use in wildlife-related programs.
Since the law went into effect in 1937, the nation's 50 state wildlife agencies have received more than $12 billion. White-tailed deer, elk, antelope, turkeys and wood ducks, which all hovered near extinction when the program began, now thrive almost everywhere within their historic ranges.
Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said virtually all of the work that helped restore those species could be traced to Wildlife Restoration Act disbursements.
"The impact has been tremendous," Johansen said. "I believe that one piece of legislation has contributed more to the success of wildlife management than any other act by any other government anywhere else in the world."
In the 75 years since the legislation went into effect, West Virginia has received more than $100 million. The money has been used in just about every wildlife-related program the DNR has undertaken.
"We use it in so many areas, it's easier to say what isn't covered," Johansen said. "For example, we don't use it for law enforcement, land acquisition or capital improvements. Nearly everything else we do, we do at least in part with federal funds."
In the 1930s, when the law was being written, a lot of wildlife work needed to be done. By then, the seemingly limitless supply of wildlife that once graced the country had been reduced to mere remnants.
Sportsmen, concerned that they soon might not be allowed to hunt, got organized. They joined with several of the nation's major firearm manufacturers and asked Congress for help.
That help came when Nevada Sen. Key Pittman and Virginia Rep. A. Willis Robertson co-sponsored a bill that took money from an existing excise tax on firearms and earmarked it for use by state wildlife agencies. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law in 1937.
The Pittman-Robertson Act, as it informally came to be known, channels the excise tax money to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which then in turn apportions it to the states based on each state's land area and number of hunting license holders.
The money doesn't come without strings. States must fund their wildlife programs up front. The Fish and Wildlife Service then sends the states 75 cents for each dollar spent.
Scott Warner, the DNR's federal aid coordinator, said roughly 40 percent of the agency's annual operating budget comes from those federal funds. The remaining 60 percent comes from hunting- and fishing-license sales.