Pittman-Robertson Act Provides State Wildlife Funding Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Pittman-Robertson Act authorized funding of state wildlife agencies through federal excise taxes on sporting guns and ammunition used in hunting.

Summary of Event

On September 2, 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Pittman-Robertson Act, which authorized the federal government to collect manufacturers’ excise taxes on sporting guns and ammunition and to transfer the money to state wildlife agencies. This law originated through the cooperation of conservationists, primarily hunters, and manufacturers of sporting arms and ammunition. The revenues collected have been used to support wildlife management, including purchase of critical habitat, management of existing refuges, hunter training, and wildlife restoration. Many species whose survival had once been threatened have thereby been able to thrive. The law, also known as the Federal Aid in Wildlife Act, was initiated by Carl D. Shoemaker, a conservationist, and was sponsored through Congress in less than three months by Senator Key Pittman and Representative A. Willis Robertson. [kw]Pittman-Robertson Act Provides State Wildlife Funding (Sept. 2, 1937)[Pittman Robertson Act Provides State Wildlife Funding (Sept. 2, 1937)] [kw]Act Provides State Wildlife Funding, Pittman-Robertson (Sept. 2, 1937) [kw]State Wildlife Funding, Pittman-Robertson Act Provides (Sept. 2, 1937) [kw]Wildlife Funding, Pittman-Robertson Act Provides State (Sept. 2, 1937) [kw]Funding, Pittman-Robertson Act Provides State Wildlife (Sept. 2, 1937) Pittman-Robertson Act (1937)[Pittman Robertson Act] Wildlife conservation Federal Aid in Wildlife Act (1937) Conservation;wildlife Hunting;taxation [g]United States;Sept. 2, 1937: Pittman-Robertson Act Provides State Wildlife Funding[09570] [c]Environmental issues;Sept. 2, 1937: Pittman-Robertson Act Provides State Wildlife Funding[09570] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 2, 1937: Pittman-Robertson Act Provides State Wildlife Funding[09570] Shoemaker, Carl Pittman, Key Robertson, A. Willis Darling, Jay Lucas, Scott

In the early years of the twentieth century, as sport hunting became increasingly popular and wildlife habitat and wildlife itself became increasingly scarce, leading conservationists tried to develop and fund a refuge system that would benefit both wildlife and sportsmen. Hunting;regulation Several laws were passed as a result. The Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 set up a refuge system to be financed by congressional appropriations. In 1934, largely through the efforts of Jay Darling as chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey, the Duck Stamp and Fish Wildlife Coordination Acts, which provided funding for wetland conservation, were passed.

Darling and Shoemaker, as special investigator of the Senate Special Committee on Conservation and Wildlife Resources, helped to organize the first North American Wildlife Conference North American Wildlife Conference in 1936, out of which the National Wildlife Federation National Wildlife Federation was created. At the second North American Wildlife Conference in 1937, Shoemaker and others started to develop what would become the Pittman-Robertson law by modifying suggestions made by John B. Burnham Burnham, John B. and T. Gilbert Pearson Pearson, T. Gilbert in 1925. Burnham and Pearson had suggested that the 10 percent excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition be used to finance refuges instead of being considered part of general funds, but the proposed financing did not go through because Congress repealed all excise taxes, although they were reinstated in 1932.

In 1937, Shoemaker suggested that the current 11 percent manufacturers’ excise tax on sporting guns and ammunition be allocated to the states equitably. In order to apportion funding equitably and to balance the small populations of the western states with the high populations of the East, his formula included the number of paid license holders as well as the area of the states. This approach would balance the western states with their relatively small populations but large land area with the larger number of licensed hunters in the more populous but smaller eastern states. The draft bill was supported by the Bureau of Biological Survey, Bureau of Biological Survey, U.S. state wildlife agencies, and conservation organizations. The firearms industry supported it as well after Shoemaker agreed to the suggestion of Charles L. Horn of the Federal Cartridge Company to lower the percentage of tax collections used for administrative costs by the Biological Survey from his proposed 10 percent to 8 percent.

Shoemaker enlisted the support of Senator Key Pittman of Nevada, chairman of the Special Committee on Wildlife, and Representative A. Willis Robertson of Virginia, chairman of the House Select Committee on Conservation of Wildlife Resources. Robertson had been a member of the Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries Commission and knew that state legislatures sometimes used funds from license receipts for state programs other than those of the wildlife agencies. He therefore added to Shoemaker’s bill the prohibition of the diversion of funds for purposes other than the administration of the state fish and game department. The modified bill moved through the Senate very quickly. In the House, however, the Agriculture Committee, not the Wildlife Committee, had jurisdiction over the bill. In order to entice Representative Scott Lucas from Illinois, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, to move the bill through the House more quickly, Shoemaker encouraged Illinois women’s groups and garden clubs to contact Lucas. The bill passed the House on August 17 and was signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt on September 2, 1937.

Ira N. Gabrielson, Gabrielson, Ira N. chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey, and his assistant, Albert M. Day, Day, Albert M. implemented the Pittman-Robertson Act. Day determined that the funds were to be used for three types of state projects: to purchase land to rehabilitate wildlife, to develop and improve land’s suitability for birds and mammals, and to research ways to solve problems of wildlife restoration. In order to ensure that management of state wildlife programs was performed by professionals and not political appointees, Gabrielson and Day also required that management personnel hired through Pittman-Robertson funds be trained and competent.

Despite excise tax revenues of around three million dollars in 1938, Congress allocated only one million dollars that first year and continued to refuse to allocate the funds to the state wildlife agencies until the 1950’s. In 1939, the Bureau of Biological Survey was removed from the Department of Agriculture and placed in the Department of the Interior, where it was combined with the Bureau of Fisheries of the Department of Commerce. This new agency was called the Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1951, as part of the Appropriations Act, Congress agreed to transfer all the tax collections to the state wildlife agencies. In 1956, Congress agreed to release thirteen million dollars in back tax revenues. As a result, excise tax revenues collected from hunters have been used to replenish wildlife and their habitat throughout the United States.

Over the years, as the act’s influence has grown, it has financed scientific research of particular species and their habitats, habitat restoration, hunter education, and wildlife research in general. As a result, the decline of many species has been reversed, habitat has been restored, and hunting accidents and fatalities in many states have declined. The Pittman-Robertson Act has increased the professionalism of wildlife research and management by setting professional standards for management personnel as well as requiring that projects meet national standards. It also has served as a dependable source of money so that states may engage in long-term programs, and it has provided professionals with a means of exchanging information to ensure that managers are aware of projects in different states. Funds have also been used to support cooperative programs with nongovernment organizations.

Funds are distributed based on the number of paid license holders and the area of each state. No state may receive more than 5 percent or less than 1 percent of the total funds. Puerto Rico receives one-half of 1 percent and Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands each receives one-sixth of 1 percent. For every dollar a state receives it must contribute twenty-five cents. In 1970, Pittman-Robertson’s funding base was expanded to include a 10 percent excise tax on handguns, and in 1971, an 11 percent tax on archery equipment. Half of these revenues are used for hunter education and half for traditional wildlife restoration. The use of the funds has changed over the years. In 1970, Congress allowed states to finance not only specific projects but also wider-ranging comprehensive plans. All in all, eligibility has become more complicated as environmental attitudes and regulations have changed and as new federal requirements, including laws pertaining to civil rights and age discrimination, have been instituted.

More than $800 million (or around 60 percent of the money) has been used to obtain land for feeding, resting, and breeding places for wildlife. States have provided around $270 million of their own money, largely from license fees from hunters. Wetlands were of particular concern. In the first fifty years of the law’s existence, the states acquired more than two million acres of waterfowl habitat. This and other acquisition and control of land through leasing and cooperation with farmers and other landowners has been very important in preventing further deterioration and loss of natural habitat. The law also has facilitated modification of the land, through stream diversion and improvement of drainage and nesting cover, all beneficial to wildlife.


The Pittman-Robertson Act was enacted to reverse the decline of wildlife in the United States. It has led to very successful restorations of specific species, including the wild turkey and white-tailed deer. Through the application of knowledge gained about such factors as habitat, food habits, and predators, and by regulating human hunting, the number of white-tailed deer has drastically increased so that in some areas of the country there are too many deer. Heightened awareness of the wild turkey’s needs, combined with the development of traps and transfer techniques, has led to successful turkey restoration in many states. Turkey populations have increased so much that the number of states with legal hunting seasons has grown from sixteen in 1952 to forty-six in 1987.

Improved trapping and transfer techniques for bighorn sheep have also been developed with funds from Pittman-Robertson and from such groups as the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep and the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep. Bighorn sheep have been transferred back to parts of their historic ranges in the intermountain plateau region between the Rockies and the Cascades and Sierra Nevada in the western United States. Development and construction of artificial water-collecting devices have also improved conditions for the bighorn and other animals such as the elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope. Although the bighorn sheep are not flourishing to the degree of the wild turkey and the white-tailed deer, their number are much larger than they would have been without the money and cooperation fostered by Pittman-Robertson.

Pittman-Robertson matching funds have also contributed to the comeback of black bear populations. States have been able to buy and manage lands and to support long-term studies. By trapping and tranquilizing bears so that they can be tagged and collared with radio transmitters, wildlife researchers have greatly expanded their knowledge of the black bear. New hunting regulations, changes in the public’s attitudes about bears, and the recovery of its forest habitat have all combined with scientific research to contribute to the increase in bear population.

Other animals whose numbers have increased include the prairie chicken, the mountain lion, the Canadian goose, the pronghorn antelope, the elk, the caribou, the beaver, the sea otter, the gray and fox squirrels, the mule deer, the wood duck, the chukar partridge, the bobcat, and the ring-necked pheasant. The benefits of the Pittman-Robertson Act extend beyond the hunters who pay the excise taxes funding the program. Because of the act, wildlife has become more plentiful, some species have been saved from extinction, and natural habitats have been improved and expanded throughout the United States. Pittman-Robertson Act (1937)[Pittman Robertson Act] Wildlife conservation Federal Aid in Wildlife Act (1937) Conservation;wildlife Hunting;taxation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Land Use and Wildlife Resources. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1970. Focuses on the interactions between wildlife management and agriculture. In examining the relationship of the Pittman-Robertson Act with other legislation, the book provides some context for its role in wildlife restoration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Owen, A. L. Riesch. Conservation Under F. D. R. New York: Praeger, 1983. Examines conservation during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Discusses the historical context in which Pittman-Robertson Act was enacted and the law’s relation to other legislation and policies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Wildlife Aid from Gun Taxes.” Nature Magazine 30 (December, 1937): 361-362. This magazine states that its purpose is to assist Americans in playing a militant part in attaining constructive conservation aims. The editorial, written a few months after the Pittman-Robertson Act became law, predicted that both migratory and resident game would be harmed because more hunting would be encouraged to raise more tax money.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sheldon, H. P. “Game Restoration.” Country Life and the Sportsman 74 (June, 1938): 28, 90. A brief summary of the act. Discusses how the act expanded federal authority to nonmigratory wildlife, previously considered property of the states but now seen as a national resource. It warns that although Congress has authorized funds, wildlife interests must ensure that the moneys are actually appropriated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sinclair, Anthony R. E., John M. Fryxell, and Graeme Caughley. Wildlife Ecology, Conservation, and Management. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2006. An excellent introduction to ecology and conservation studies. Includes a CD that helps students create computer-based models of different ecological scenarios.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taber, Richard D., and Neil F. Payne. Wildlife, Conservation, and Human Welfare: A United States and Canadian Perspective. Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 2003. Attempts to chronicle the history of human impact on wildlife and analyzes the response to its destruction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. Restoring America’s Wildlife: 1937-1987: The First 50 Years of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration (Pittman-Robertson) Act. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1987. Provides an overall summary of the evolution and implementation of the act and many detailed examples of its impact on specific species, habitats, and hunters. Includes maps and photographs, statistical tables, and a state-by-state summary of actions taken by wildlife agencies.

First U.S. National Wildlife Refuge Is Established

Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Darling Founds the National Wildlife Federation

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Is Formed

Categories: History