Wisconsin has a rich outdoor tradition, but a decline in hunting and the license fees it generates is threatening conservation funding in Wisconsin, according to a report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Total deer licenses dropped 5.8 percent between 1999 and 2017 and the decline is projected to continue.

A 2016 study by the Department of Natural Resources found nearly 90 percent of the state fish and wildlife budget comes from state licenses and federal excise taxes purchased or paid for by hunters, anglers, trappers and shooters. In recent years, a decline in hunting has lowered license revenue and open gaps between the state’ budget spending on fish and wildlife and the funds available to pay for it.

Wisconsin residents hunt at two-and-a-half times the national rate and fish at twice the national rate, DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports show. The state is second only to South Dakota in the number of out-of-state-hunters and third in the nation for out-of-state anglers behind Florida and Michigan.

License sales help the DNR manage 600 public properties totaling 680,000 acres, stock fish, pay wardens, conduct research and cover wildlife damage to crops. The funds also help to protect wildlife like wolves and endangered species like the Karner blue butterfly, trumpeter swans, ospreys and bald eagles.

The report says Wisconsin’s population has moved into the cities and suburbs and has shifted away from hunting. Between 1999 and 2017, DNR data show total deer licenses—some hunters buy more than one—fell by 50,414, or 5.8 percent, to 824,475. Sportsman licenses, which combine deer and small game hunting with fishing privileges, dropped by half over the same years. Exacerbating this trend, the hunters who do buy licenses are spending fewer days in the field and are growing older. The decline in hunting—traditionally a sport of rural white males—has been attributed to factors ranging from an increasingly urbanized and racially diverse population to the rise of electronics, the shrinking pool of adult teachers for youth, and the lack of access to hunting land.

Fishing license sales grew by 3.6 percent in 2017, but the state population grew about two-and-a-half times faster than the sale of fishing licenses over the period suggesting a shrinking population of anglers.

In January 2017, the DNR said it had cut spending by a total of $20 million over the previous years to help balance the budget, leading to reduced habitat management, warden patrols, invasive species control and other activities.

The Policy Forum says lawmakers could consider both spending cuts and ways to maintain existing license revenues, such as adjusting fees for inflation; reducing or rescinding discounts for first-time or senior license purchasers; re-engaging inactive hunters; and expanding learn-to-hunt programs. These classes have shown some promise in recruiting urban residents who are interested in hunting and fishing as a way of obtaining high-quality local meat and fish.

A 2006 Legislative Audit Bureau report found Wisconsin was in the top 10 state for the heaviest reliance on hunters and anglers for conservation funding.

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