Fears of gun limits trigger a boon for wildlife

Gun enthusiasts who still fear new regulations from the administration of President Obama have been stockpiling for more than a year, with an unexpected side benefit: a windfall for wildlife conservation.

That’s because a tax on guns, ammunition and bow-hunting weaponry goes into a fund that is split among the states to be used for conservation.

Rusty Garrison, assistant chief of game management for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said Georgia received almost a third more money from these taxes in 2010 than in the previous year. That has helped offset the cuts the department has faced during state budget cuts.

Georgia received $9.8 million in 2009, compared to $6.8 million the year before, Garrison said. The biggest beneficiaries are the state’s 86 wildlife management areas and its hunter training and education programs.

Local firearms sales way up

Although more than a year has passed since Obama’s inauguration without new gun regulations being proposed, local gun shop owners say the spike in sales continues, making the business somewhat recession-proof.

“Stockpiling happens daily,” said Harry Dehart, owner of Firearm Traders Warehouse in Macon. “They’re worried about the confiscation of firearms or that the government is going to stop or tag the sales of ammunition.”

Dehart said law enforcement officials have been stockpiling too.

He advises his friends to just buy what they need. “But people are not convinced it’s not going to happen,” Dehart said.

Hamp Dowling, owner of Eagle Gun Range and Gun Shop in Macon, isn’t convinced either.

He said he’s seen a 35 to 40 percent increase in gun sales during the last year, and sales of ammunition have doubled. He attributes that to a combination of fear of crime and fear of new gun limits.

“Last year was our best year ever,” said Dowling, who has been in business 14 years.

Dowling said he has a waiting list for boxes of premium ammunition, and the manufacturer he works with has expanded production to six days a week.

Wildlife programs benefit

The 10 to 11 percent tax on each of those sales goes into the Pittman-Robertson Fund, which was created by the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937. Each state provides a 25 percent match to receive its portion, which is based on the size of the state and the number of gun licenses sold there.

But even the state match can become difficult with current budget constraints, Garrison said. Georgia mostly provides its match through employee and volunteer time, he said.

Garrison said about $3 million of the federal funds go toward planting food plots, conducting research and otherwise improving the popular wildlife management areas, which in Middle Georgia include Oaky Woods, Ocmulgee, Cedar Creek, Rum Creek, Beaverdam and many more. This foots the bill for two-thirds of the management activities there, which are aimed at game species such as deer and ducks but benefit many others.

For example, thinning pine forests to benefit quail also helps migratory birds, including threatened warblers, he said. And many wildlife management areas are now being converted back to longleaf pine forests, an endangered ecosystem that once dominated south Georgia and supports endangered species such as indigo snakes and red-cockaded woodpeckers.

Garrison said the 1937 law is a major reason that Georgia has so many wildlife management areas, which are especially important in states like Georgia that don’t have much public land.

The gun tax also pays for:

— Hunter surveys used to establish hunting seasons annually;

— Wildlife research on species like waterfowl and turkeys, as well as a current long-term study of coyotes on two Middle Georgia wildlife management areas;

— The state’s hunter education programs, which train about 15,000 hunters a year on safety before they receive gun licenses; and

— Hunter recruitment programs and archery programs at public schools.

“To me, this is one of the better pieces of legislation that ever came out of Washington, because it has paid for the conservation of our natural resources in this country,” Garrison said. “My concern is always that when a federal budget crisis happens, they’ll start looking around at, ‘Where can we get more money?’ ’’

To reach writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.