The return of bighorn sheep in New Mexico is being assisted by selling hunts for them. While that seems somewhat upside down, it’s true.
Selling big-money hunts, which can go for more than $100,000 at auction, brings in necessary funds so New Mexico can continue to maintain this species in its mountains.
It’s a system that, admittedly, puts money ahead of fairness — winning a tag to hunt bighorn sheep is unlikely for the average hunter. The odds of drawing a license in a public hunt in the Western states that have bighorn sheep can be less 1 in 100, or even lower.
One hunter, who lives in Texas and Santa Fe, has spent more than $1 million on seven tags, with 90 percent of that money going directly to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish’s bighorn sheep enhancement program.
It’s one example of how hunters and fishing enthusiasts pay for conservation and wildlife preservation programs.
In the case of the bighorn sheep enhancement program, no taxpayer dollars are spent. Excise taxes on firearms, ammunition and other sporting equipment go into the program, as does support from hunter-conservation programs. Add to that the sale of sheep hunt tags at auction. (The record is $480,000 spent in 2013 for a hunt in Montana.)
Aside from basic fairness — in New Mexico, hunting is accessible to all — there needs to be more discussion of how to broaden the base of support for public lands we all share.
Hunting and fishing have declined in popularity over the decades since taxes on equipment for those hobbies were dedicated to conservation. Outdoor users of today are as likely to be hikers, campers or kayakers — yet they don’t pay the taxes on equipment that hunters and fishing enthusiasts do. The share of adults who hunted peaked in 1960 at about 11 percent, falling to around 4 percent by 2016. For fishing, the peak was 24 percent of adults in 1975, down to about 14 percent in 2016. Fewer people are shouldering the burden, whether paying taxes on gear or buying licenses for their activity.
The debate in conservation circles — going back to Bruce Babbitt’s days as interior secretary in the late 1990s — has been whether it’s time to institute a “backpack tax,” a small excise tax on other sorts of outdoor equipment to pay for better stewardship of the outdoors.
With Congress — finally — deciding to fund fully the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the president signing the authorization, some $900 million will be dedicated each year for parks and open spaces.
Full funding took decades to achieve; the fund dates to the 1960s, with $20 billion invested across the country since it was established with fees from oil and gas drilling.
Last summer’s Great American Outdoors Act fixed the fund’s erratic financing, as well as dedicating some $9 billion to fix the maintenance backlog on federal lands — everything from national parks to forests to Bureau of Land Management acres.
New Mexico and other states have found one way to bring in extra dollars to fund important conservation programs — big-money hunts. We have the Game and Fish Department but also have established an Outdoor Recreation Division to spotlight the many activities possible in the great outdoors and to grow its economic impact in our state.
While hiking is about as inexpensive an activity as they come, maintaining trails and picking up trash costs money. And in periods of declining budgets, states will have to be creative to find the necessary dollars. In Minnesota in 2008, voters approved a general tax to support outdoor recreation. The “backpack tax” is another possibility.
The Outdoor Industry Association has opposed such a tax because of high import fees it says businesses pay for goods manufactured overseas. Another possibility to pay for public land support would be directing those import fees directly to support public lands instead of to the state’s general fund.
With more focus on getting outdoors — it’s one of the few safe places during a pandemic — the opportunity is here to find additional methods of supporting public lands.
Until then, states will keep auctioning high-dollar hunts — using that money to keep healthy the very animals the hunters want to kill. Makes sense, doesn’t it?