During President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, a wave of panic swept through the nation's ranks of Second Amendment proponents. Many believed the first Democratic president in eight years would soon put gun rights in the crosshairs. Paranoia generated a rush on firearms and ammunition, driving profits at gun companies to record heights and leaving retailers struggling to meet demand.
Montana has cashed in on that fear factor in an unusual—and in many cases unexpected—way. Thanks to a 70-year-old federal excise tax on firearm and ammo sales, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) is looking at a historic 40-percent bump in wildlife conservation funding over the next two years.
"People have different opinions on different administrations," FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim says. "If they were concerned about gun parts and components being more difficult to secure, I'm sure they made some effort to purchase some things, concerned that they might not be available. Our reaction was, 'We'll put the money to good use.'"
FWP announced last week that the 2008-09 spike in firearm sales equates to an unprecedented rise—from $9 million last year to $12.5 million in 2010—in funding from the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, a 1939 law establishing a nationwide coffer for state-level conservation and rehabilitation projects. It's the most dramatic single-year increase the state has seen from the program to date, and comes as good news for an agency that saw a $2 million dip in revenue last year.
"I certainly consider it ironic," says Adam Brooks, federal aid program manager at FWP. "Almost to the extent I wish someone would threaten to reduce the amount of fishing rods for sale. Then maybe the [Wallop-Breaux] fish restoration program would benefit."
But whatever subtle humor FWP might find in Second Amendment paranoia creating a windfall for the state is lost on local conservationists. A $3.5 million increase in conservation funding is a serious matter, they say, regardless of how the money was generated.
"I knew all along that this would ultimately benefit the funding for our wildlife management organizations in the states," Montana Wildlife Federation President Tim Aldrich says. "I know the cause, and I know the effect, but I want to be a little bit careful about painting the wrong picture in terms of the reasons for it."
The reasons seem simple enough: Afraid of losing access to certain firearms and ammunition, individuals across the country stockpiled goods. The phenomenon lasted well into the first months of Obama's presidency, with gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson alone reporting a 31.9 percent increase in firearm sales last fall.
Even conservationists noted the impacts on the local market. National Wildlife Federation Regional Representa-tive Land Tawney says all it took was a trip to Missoula sporting goods stores last year to see that supplies of even the most common ammo calibers were scarce.
"When it came to hunting season this year, the quantities were very limited," Tawney says. "It wasn't as easy, when you'd go to the store, to buy shells. Sometimes I couldn't buy what I wanted."
If one good thing came from the shortage, Tawney says, it's the increased opportunity for state conservationists to protect what they value. FWP will soon tackle the question of how the money can best benefit wildlife restoration, and conservationists hope to see the public included in that debate.
"With it's history of citizen involvement in wildlife and natural resource issues, I don't think Montana is going to be caught wanting for a lack of potential projects to put this kind of habitat money to good use," says Dale Burk, local author and former president of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association.
Conservationists are already lining up with their own ideas on where FWP should allocate the recent windfall. Aldrich believes the money could prove valuable in the acquisition of 41,000 acres along Fish Creek in Mineral County, and Aasheim confirms the project will likely hinge in part on Pittman-Robertson dollars. (For more on the acquisition, see "Preserving Fish Creek" on page 6).
Land acquisition is hardly an unusual use of Pittman-Robertson resources, Brooks says. Most of the state's Wildlife Management Areas—including the Blackfoot-Clearwater—have drawn at least partial funding from that source. With a total of $12.5 million in reimbursement grants coming from Pittman-Robertson this year, it's likely that multiple projects statewide will benefit from the bump.
Individual conservationists see need for increased funding almost everywhere they look. Tawney believes FWP should tap Pittman-Robertson to increase hunting access through privately owned lands. Burk says wintering habitats for wildlife are a growing concern, given the state's interest in natural resource development.
"We have before us a lot of proposals to literally alter the landscape of north-central and northeastern Montana for oil and gas exploration," Burk says. "Making sure we have information available to make the proper decisions to protect wildlife out there seems to me one of the projects that could be helpful."
One fact remains distressingly clear for conservationists and FWP alike. The surge in Pittman-Robertson dollars won't last. The agency can stretch the increase for two years, Brooks says, but gun sales have already dipped below figures in 2008-09. Such bumps are a rarity, a welcome but supplemental source at best for conservation in Montana.
"We have to take it in stride that it's not something you can build a program with," Brooks says, likening the increase to federal stimulus funds. "We're looking at it as a one-time occurrence."