The Honey Lake Waterfowl Stamps

The Pittman-Robertson Act


It soon became evident that the federal government could not hope to run an effective waterfowl management program without the cooperation of the state conservation agencies. The task was simply too large and complex. State officials were receptive to accepting joint responsibility for the restoration of waterfowl. However, they were lacking well trained personal to accumulate the data necessary for adequate management and also funding to purchase and develop their own waterfowl management areas.

As a result of efforts by Darling, the First American Wildlife Conference was held in St. Louis in 1937 (Moum, 1987a). The Great Depression had forced Congress to reimpose excise taxes in 1932. Subsequently, there was renewed interest in a tax on arms and ammunition. At the conference conservation leaders agreed that the tax revenue should be made available for state conservation programs (Madson, 1994).

Carl Shoemaker, a former state fish and game director, attended the conference as Secretary to the Senate Special Committee on the Conservation Wildlife Resources. Upon returning, Shoemaker drafted a proposal for a ten percent excise tax and was able to secure support from key leaders in the firearms industry (Madson, 1994), Senator Key Pittman of Nevada and Representative Willis Robertson of Virginia introduced the legislation known officially as the Federal Aid In Wildlife Restoration Act in Congress. On September 2, 1937, President Roosevelt signed the bill into law (Moum, 1987a; Madson, 1994).

Senator Robertson had previously been a member of the Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries Commission. He was familiar with the way in which state legislatures sometimes acted. Robertson insisted on adding an amendment to Shoemaker’s bill before introducing it in the House. Robertson’s farsighted amendment prohibited state legislatures from diverting funds (obtained through the sale of hunting licenses, etc.) from conservation departments to balance state budgets. If this occurred, the state would no longer be eligible for funding from the Federal Aid In Wildlife Restoration Program (Madson, 1994). In recognition of the efforts of the two Congressmen, the act has become popularly known as the Pittman-Robertson (P-R) Act.

According to the Act, “An amount equal to the revenue accruing from the excise tax imposed by Section 610, Title IV of the Revenue Act of 1932 (47 Stat. 169), as extended on firearms, shells and cartridges is authorized to be set apart in the Treasury as a special fund to be known as “The Federal Aid to Wildlife Fund.” (Annual Report of the Pittman- Robertson Program For the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1946)

Currently the Pittman-Robertson Program collects an 11 percent tax on sporting rifles, shotguns, ammunition and archery gear intended for hunting, along with a ten percent tax on handguns (Madson, 1994). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is custodian of the fund. With the exception of administration costs, all of the money is distributed to state fish and game departments (Johnson, 1958). Under the terms of the Act, the funds are apportioned to the departments according to the total land area and the number of hunting license holders in each state. The larger the state and the more hunting licenses a state sells, the larger the portion of the “P-R pie” the state is eligible to receive.

Initially, the state game departments must pay for the full cost of each project through license and stamp sales. Once everything has been completed according to a pre-approved plan, the projects may then be reimbursed up to 75 percent of the total cost from the federal fund. Therefore, the states ultimately pay for only 25 percent of each approved project (Johnson, 1958; Moum, 1987b). Pittman-Robertson funds are primarily used by the states for the purchase, development and maintenance of wildlife habitat and also for scientific research into problems facing wildlife restoration (Moum, 1987b; Madson, 1994).

The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934 and the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 are similar legislations in that both were passed to secure funding for wildlife conservation projects—with an emphasis on migratory waterfowl restoration and conservation. While “duck stamp” sales to date have raised about $500 million to fund federal waterfowl management areas, the Pittman-Robertson Program has collected over $2.5 billion for wildlife conservation work at the state level (Madson, 1994).


Following the 1930s federal and state waterfowl management areas were, for the most part, developed to meet three major objectives:

  • To provide habitat, food and protection for breeding and migrating waterfowl.
  • To provide an adequate source of feed to migrating waterfowl so as to minimize depredations to agricultural crops.
  • To provide regulated waterfowl hunting for sports men who could not afford to belong to private clubs.

For the federal areas especially, the goal of protection has generally been of primary concern. For state areas, the emphasis has sometimes shifted in order to deal with local conditions and priorities. A classic example occurred in California during the 1940s and 1950s.



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