Go west, young man. That’s what California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife is telling hunters and anglers.
That is, of course, as long as hunters are willing to pay a fee for the privilege to purchase ammunition in the Golden State and pass a state-required background check. There are a couple more minor stipulations. Hunters can’t bring their own ammunition into the state if they’re traveling there and they can only use expensive non-traditional ammunition.
California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife is putting on a full-scale blitz to bring hunters out of the woodwork and back into the woods. The wildlife officials are noticing a crisis. Hunters and anglers are largely responsible for wildlife conservation funding. On the left coast, though, that funding pool is drying up.
It’s hardly a surprise. For decades, elected officials have scapegoated gun owners and hunters for political advantage. The state has some of the strictest gun control measures in the country.
State biologists blamed hunters’ use of traditional ammunition for the plight of the California condor and since banned the use of it throughout the state. They’ve levied increasingly burdensome regulations and squeezed out hunters and shooting sports enthusiasts. Now, the state’s wildlife and public lands are feeling the results.
Roughly five percent of Americans hunt. It’s why the NSSF created the +ONE campaign, to challenge hunters and recreational shooters to pledge to introduce someone new to the woods and shooting ranges. California’s participation, however, hovers around 1 percent.
A quick look at California’s oppressive gun control laws shows why. Along with the background checks for ammunition purchases, the nation’s most popular selling centerfire rifle, the AR-15, is banned in the state. “Precursor” parts used for repairs or upgrades require background checks. Fees to purchase guns in California climbed in 2020 and citizens under 21 face an age-based gun ban, meaning a 19 or 20-year-old hunter can’t buy a semiautomatic rifle.
These stifling policies do little to improve public safety, but it sends the message to Californians. Gun owners and hunters aren’t welcome.
It’s no wonder licenses sold to California hunters year decreased approximately 70 percent, from over 750,000 in 1970 down to 225,000 last year. Those licenses fund the state wildlife conservation and management efforts, along with the Pittman-Robertson excise tax paid by firearms and ammunition manufacturers. That fund has contributed more than $12.5 billion since 1937.
Biting the Hand
Compounding the problems, the state raised hunting fees to overcome the loss of hunters. This, along with increased fees to buy firearms and ammunition, is pricing would-be hunters out of the woods and marshes.
In fact, studies show that ammunition costs for hunters and recreational shooters in California could jump as high as 284 percent or higher just to meet the state’s strict ammunition regulations. It’s no surprise hunters feel spurned by their state, especially since it was hunters that contributed to wildlife populations growing to their healthiest levels in decades. Even iconic firearms maker Weatherby left its California roots for more friendly Western skies in Wyoming.
Policy Over Public Relations
This was predicted. California took its hunters and recreational shooters for granted. Actually, they did much worse. They marginalized them, instead of venerating them as the true conservationists they are.
State regulators and policymakers would be wise to recognize hunters overwhelmingly contribute the vital financial resources that have made California’s public lands some of the most attractive and bountiful in the country.
California’s wildlife and wildlands depend on it.
Larry Keane is SVP for Government and Public Affairs, Assistant Secretary and General Counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.