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The story of wildlife conservation has changed dramatically over the past century in America. What hasn’t changed is who pays for all of it: hunters and fishermen, through the sale of licenses.

But today, that formula faces a fundamental problem — there are far fewer hunters and fishermen than there used to be. At the same time, the mission and cost of wildlife conservation has grown significantly in recent decades, from the restoration of “game” animals to the protection of all animals and their habitats.

“It’s not just deer and turkey and ruffed grouse,” said Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s songbirds and shorebirds, insects, all sorts of species that are not hunted. And there’s not a new source of funding to address the management of those species, the conservation of their habitat, and the expertise to do it.”

Facing a budget crunch, MassWildlife, the tiny agency tasked with protecting and managing the state’s wildlife, is proposing to nearly double the price of hunting and fishing licenses. It is a measure aimed at covering a projected shortfall, but comes amid concerns about how long the current system can hold. And with those concerns comes a bold, even radical question, one that is being asked by proponents and critics alike: Is it time for everyone to pay for the outdoors? Especially now, as the pandemic has transformed the profile of the typical outdoors user?

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It’s a complicated question, and to understand why, you need to go back to the turn of the 20th century, an era that brought an end to commercial hunting and began a movement to reverse the damage it had caused. To restore the herds and manage the species people were relying on for sustenance, states introduced regulations and seasons, as well as officers to enforce them. To pay for it, they sold licenses, stamps, and tags.

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In 1937, the federal government bolstered those funds with perhaps the most important piece of conservation legislation ever passed in Congress, the Pittman-Robertson Act, which imposed an 11 percent excise tax on hunting weapons — guns, ammunition, and archery equipment. That money went to what is now the US Fish and Wildlife Service to distribute to states for wildlife conservation, based in part on the number of licenses sold. In 1950, similar legislation levied a 10 percent tax on fishing tackle and boat fuel.

That revenue formula financed the first truly remarkable period of animal conservation in American history. But the foundation of this success is under threat. Since peaking in the 1980s, the number of hunters nationally has plunged. In Massachusetts, the number of residents who purchase a hunting license each year has fallen below 1 percent, and fishing license purchases have dropped sharply as well.

Robert Callaghan showed off his catch while fishing on Jamaica Pond.
Robert Callaghan showed off his catch while fishing on Jamaica Pond. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

MassWildlife, which gets roughly half of its budget from the federal excise tax and the rest from license sales, has not raised its prices since 1996. Yet during that quarter century, its mission has grown exponentially. With the most popular game species thriving — we are by no means short on turkeys and deer — the agency has broadened its conservation efforts, including a massive push into land acquisition, habitat protection, and endangered species.

When MassWildlife last asked the Legislature to approve a fee increase, it oversaw 86,000 acres conserved as Wildlife Management Areas. Today, it’s more than a quarter million acres. Over the same span, the profile of those who use those areas has shifted sharply, especially during the pandemic.

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“More than 50 percent of the people are not hunters, but are bird watchers, dog walkers, people who just want to be out in the woods,” said Ron Amidon, commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game, MassWildlife’s parent agency. “So we need to find a way where all users are supporting wildlife conservation. And the common thought for that is to utilize general funds that all the public pays into.”

At the moment, this is an idea more than an actual plan, one Amidon says his office is discussing with Governor Charlie Baker. But the proposed increase in license fees for fishing and hunting — from $22.50 to $40, for each — would only keep MassWildlife afloat for another decade at most, by the agency’s best estimate. But then what? Raising license fees requires a lengthy public process and legislative approval, no small chore. But securing public money for wildlife conservation remains a tricky proposition. Just a few states have managed to pull it off, most notably Missouri, which takes 1 cent from every $8 of taxable items to fund a conservation effort that is envied nationally.

MassWildlife would love to solve the shortfall by simply selling more licenses and has stepped up recruitment and retention efforts to get more people into the woods and water. The agency is also not opposed to three measures that hunters have consistently asked for, changes that would require legislative approval but could boost license sales: allowing hunting on Sundays, allowing the use of crossbows during archery season, and reducing the bowhunting buffer zone around homes.

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“Those three changes would open up 20 to 40 percent of new land east of I-495, double the number of days available for the average person to hunt, and help us achieve the goal of managing wildlife in Massachusetts,” Amidon said. “We get complaints that there are too many deer, too many coyotes, too many turkeys, too many geese. Our biologists have testified that these are the three greatest changes that could help us manage wildlife.”

For the most part, outdoor groups have supported the proposed increases, which bring Massachusetts’ fees in line with its neighboring states. The Mass Conservation Alliance, a statewide consortium of organizations for sportsmen and sportswomen, is seeking some reductions, including no fee increases for trappers “as they are an endangered species in Mass.” But the group’s counterproposal argues that it’s time to look at new funding solutions for the future.

Help could come from a congressional bill introduced on Earth Day. Called the Restoring America’s Wildlife Act, it would award federal money for states to protect at-risk species before they become endangered.

But the broader issue of asking all outdoor users to pay for conservation efforts has proven tricky. Previous efforts to expand the excise tax beyond hunting and fishing equipment to things like hiking boots, tents, kayaks, and birding binoculars have failed against opposition from manufacturers and retailers.

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“Why isn’t REI taxed? Well, quite frankly, they should be,” said John Organ, a former UMass Amherst professor and chief of the US Geological Survey Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units.

Whether that ever happens remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Organ — a hunter himself — said he has no problem with the state asking for only its second fee increase in the past 40 years.

“I think that most people, even hunters and fishermen, don’t fully appreciate the value we all receive from the purchase of a license,” Organ said. “There is an expectation that the outdoors should be cheap, but what we get from it is priceless.”


Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.