The WRP Excise Tax Works:

A Story From The Industry’s Perspective
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Image: NSSF

Over the years, billions of dollars — industry dollars as many say — have been invested in wildlife, hunting and recreational shooting via the federal Wildlife Restoration Program (WRP).

Through this program, a 10%–11% special excise tax paid by the manufacturers and importers of firearms, ammunition and archery equipment is collected by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). It is then distributed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to state wildlife agencies to spend for the exclusive benefit of wildlife, hunters and target shooters. These investments have created significant recreational hunting and shooting opportunities — which in turn have generated billions of dollars in sales of hunting, shooting and fishing equipment, as shown in a recent report released by NSSF.

Many companies who pay the tax are unaware of the outcomes created by these dollars. This isn’t surprising as most communications issued by states and the USFWS have described “success” in terms of how much money was spent, not the returns on investment received by the companies paying the tax. Businesses want to know the value of the tax in terms of their bottom line. Recognizing companies know to the penny how much they pay in taxes each year, explaining the returns in equal terms will never be possible. However, this effort paints the best possible picture about WRP’s returns to the industry.

Setting The Stage

Considering the tax has been in effect since 1937, with companies paying more and more into the pot each year, returns on tax investments were examined at the long- and short-term levels. Let’s start by setting the stage.

In the early 1900s, scores of North American native species faced a bleak and uncertain future. In many states, deer hunting was completely closed due to extremely low populations. Waterfowl populations along with elk, turkey and many other popular game animals were also under severe stress, significantly limiting hunting opportunities. Fortunately, sportsmen conservationists — with the industry’s support — stepped in and by 1937, created the WRP to provide sustainable funding for wildlife restoration and expanded hunting. With the infusion of WRP dollars, states began restocking depleted populations, instituted scientific studies to better understand how to increase and maintain healthy game populations and increased law enforcement efforts to protect and accelerate our gains. The stage was set for the world’s greatest wildlife comeback story ever and the growth of a major industry we now enjoy today.

By The Numbers

Since its inception, more than $13 billion has been collected and invested in wildlife restoration and hunting/shooting access in the U.S. Each year, over $600 million is generated and when matched as required by law, swells to nearly $1 billion. But as mentioned before, the dollars spent is not a measure of success.

At the big-picture level, more than 550 shooting ranges have been built or renovated in just the past five years with many more in the works. Over 1 million people receive their hunter education and safety training every three years. In the past few years, states have been rapidly expanding their hunter and shooter recruitment efforts.

Currently, these funds help maintain 47 million acres of publicly accessible lands for hunting. Keep in mind: The size of the hunting-related industry in 1937 was miniscule compared to today. Since then, states’ WRP-funded efforts and protected hunting license dollars have driven significant growth in hunting opportunities and sales. Without this program, wildlife populations would not have recovered, and hunting would likely have become irrelevant just as it has in many other developed nations around the world.

"The stage was set for the world’s greatest wildlife comeback story ever and the growth of a major industry we now enjoy today."

Comparing Wildlife Restoration excise tax collections to hunters’ purchases of tax-related equipment gives us a glimpse at the returns from each excise tax dollar spent back to 1970. Figure 1 shows the highest returns, which approached 1,500%, were in the mid-1990s with returns estimated at 471% in 2016, the latest year hunters’ spending data was available. This means for every excise dollar paid by the industry, 471% to 1,500% more dollars were received in return.

In 2010, as firearm and ammunition sales began a long period of growth, so did excise tax collections. Given the time required for on-the-ground projects and wildlife enhancements to be planned, executed and opened to the public for use, increases in the returns on investment lag several years behind revenue collections.

Short-Term Successes

Returns on investment are also possible for many individual excise tax-funded projects. Local examples include:
Black’s Creek Shooting Range: Idaho’s Black’s Creek Shooting Range is located approximately 25 miles from downtown Boise, and is one of the largest and most visited ranges in Idaho. Established in 1976, the range has grown to offer more than 40 benches, many of them under a covered area, with a wide variety of shooting distances and handicap accessible public facilities. Visits to the range have grown steadily from 4,800 to 6,700 days annually after renovation and expansion using tax revenues. Total estimated target shooter spending on excise tax related items is an estimated $1.3 million while investments in range improvements estimated at $784,000, providing the industry a 62% return. Returns will continue for years after the investment, too.

South Dakota Walk-In Area Program: With more than three-quarters of the state’s land under private ownership, access to those lands is critical for South Dakota’s hunting community. More than 180,000 days of recreational hunting days are spent on tax-funded Walk-In Access lands each year. In recent years, the focus has been recruiting landowners and acres in the southeastern part of the state, where roughly 50% of the population reside to provide close-to-home hunting opportunities. These recruitment efforts are teamed with outreach efforts to raise awareness of the program along with user-friendly geospatial navigational tools enabling hunters to easily locate lands open for public use. Total annual hunter spending on taxable hunting items in 2019 was an estimated $4.2 million. Investments allocated to the Walk-In Area Program in 2019 was $1.6 million, providing the industry a 165% return.

Lexington WMA Shooting Range: The shooting range located within Oklahoma’s Lexington Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is about an hour south of Oklahoma City, and offers thousands of visitors the opportunity for outdoor sporting activities. Total annual estimated spending by target shooters on excise tax related items is an estimated $1.7 million. Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration (WSFR) investments allocated to the range improvements is estimated to total $307,000, which provides the industry a 358% return in one year, with returns to continue in subsequent years.

Long-Term Benefits

Selected one-year examples can’t truly convey the benefits created by decades of investments made on behalf of the industry, hunters and shooters. Looking at the situation the industry faced in 1937 compared to the present tells a better long-term story.
On a state level, many examples exist, including:

Illinois
In 1937, there were no open seasons for Illinois deer hunting. Today, deer hunting is a very popular outdoor activity, allowing hunters to spend 111 days in the field and harvesting over 150,000 deer.
In 1937, there were no open seasons for Illinois turkey hunting. Today, turkey hunting is a very popular pastime, and hunters can now spend 155 days in the field pursuing long beards.

Utah
In 1937, Utah turkey hunters had no opportunities to hunt in-state. By 2018, Utah offered 53 days of turkey hunting, allowing hunters to harvest over 3,000 turkeys.
Deer hunting has grown by 364% in Utah! From 1937 when the season was a short 11 days, deer hunters now have 51 days annually to pursue deer.

North Carolina
In 1971, North Carolina’s fall turkey season was closed. In the spring of 1972, the first fall seasons was established. When seasons re-opened, harvests were limited, with 144 birds taken in 1977. By 2018, populations had exploded and over 17,000 turkeys were taken … an increase of 11,000%.
In 1937, North Carolina grouse hunters only had a limited 26 days of hunting. By 2018, there were 139 days available for grouse hunts, an increase of 435%.

Year-Over-Year Magnifiers

It gets better. The dollars invested by the industry through its tax payments are automatically magnified. By federal law, these dollars can only be used by states to enhance hunting and recreational shooting, preventing state politicians from diverting these funds to other uses. Also, the federal law protects state hunting license dollars.

If any state spends their hunters’ license revenues on anything other than wild-game management, hunting and recreational shooting, under the watchful eye of the USFWS, the state will lose all of its federal excise tax allocations. This is an incentive that works year after year regardless of the party in office.

In addition, every three Wildlife Restoration dollars spent on state projects must be matched at least by a dollar from a non-federal source, such as hunting license fees or funds from other state and private sources, thereby increasing the buying power of every tax dollar submitted by industry. With states investing our excise tax dollars in sound, science-based wildlife enhancement and recreation projects — under the careful supervision of the USFWS — many (maybe most?) of the valuable and long-lasting hunting opportunities we enjoy today have been created while target shooting has been greatly enhanced.

" States’ WRP-funded efforts and protected hunting license dollars have driven significant growth in hunting opportunities and sales."

Is the program maximizing its potential returns? Most likely not. While the focus for decades has been on wildlife and hunting, a majority of the tax is generated from non-hunting related purchases. Home and personal protection motivations are currently the largest driver of firearms and ammunition sales in the U.S., and therefore the biggest source of WRP funds.

NSSF has been at the front of encouraging states to apply a greater portion of their tax apportionments toward construction of ranges and increasing the number of programs that introduce new shooters to our sport. Thanks to the recent passage of the Target Practice and Marksmanship Act (H.R.1222), state agencies are providing even more support for this effort. Improvements are happening, and efforts continue to further expand investments in target shooting access and recruitment programs.

There’s More To Come

The WRP excise tax benefits hunters, shooters and anyone who enjoys America’s healthy wildlife populations. Most of the general public doesn’t know of this highly successful program — a story truly untold — and even many within the shooting sports industry may not be aware of the excise tax placed on firearms and ammunition and its benefits.

With more improvements to come, today’s hunting and shooting sports industry has clearly grown tremendously from the investments made over time in improved wildlife populations, habitat, access, ranges and more. We’re the envy of the global hunting and shooting sports market (and just about all other industries) who don’t have a similar means to fuel their own growth.

While the excise tax is certainly a cost to many manufacturers’ bottom lines, our industry would not exist as we know it without this program’s significant investments.

A summary of the major numbers along with an interactive map is available at southwickassociates.com/the-wildlife-restoration-program.

Rob Southwick is the president of Southwick Associates Inc.

Jim Curcuruto is the NSSF’s director of research and market development.

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