Montana Congressman Matt Rosendale has signed on as a co-sponsor to a bill that would gut a nearly century-old program that provides more than $1 billion to states in conservation in order to stop what some Republican members of Congress believe is an unfair tax on guns and ammunition.
The Repealing Excise Tax on Unalienable Rights Now Act, or RETURN, would eliminate the federal excise tax paid on firearms and ammunition. However, doing that would severely impact federal funding for conservation and shortchange state wildlife officials.
Some congressional Republicans believe that the federal excise tax impinges on the Second Amendment — that taxes should not be levied on constitutional rights.
Many have said the measure, which stands little chance of passing the Democrat-controlled House, is nothing more than a “show bill” to voice opposition to gun control measures being supported by other liberal members.
Rosendale became a co-sponsor of the legislation, along with around 50 other Republican members of Congress. The RETURN Act was led by Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Georgia, and appears to have the support of “The Second Amendment Caucus.”
Rosendale did not respond to requests for interview for this story.
Other notable members co-sponsoring the legislation include Reps. Elsie Stafanik of New York, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Paul Gosar of Arizona and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
A long list of conservation, hunting and shooting groups have lined up to oppose the bill, signing onto a three-page letter of concerns to leaders in the U.S. House and Senate. Some of those groups in opposition to the bill include notables such as the National Rifle Association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Boone and Crockett Club, Ducks Unlimited, the Izaak Walton League, Pheasants Forever and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
“Without the financial contributions of sportsmen and women and sporting manufacturers, the seat held at the decision-making table for hunters and recreational shooters may be lost,” the letter said. “We respectfully request that you take these points into consideration before introducing or supporting legislation that would alter the status quo and may result in multiple unintended consequences.”
If the legislation were to move forward, it would stop longstanding conservation funds that have recently sent more than $1 billion to the 50 states for conservation efforts, largely supported through federal taxes paid from the purchase of ammunition and guns. In 1937 and still today, the funding system is often praised by politicians as an example of government working right, while hunting and fishing groups celebrate it as a way to preserve habitat and resources for future hunting and fishing.
The Pittman-Robertson Act was passed to combat overhunting and habitat loss by dedicating the federal excise taxes to conservation and habitat restoration. According to congressional data, Montana alone saw more than $28 million from the Pittman-Robertson Act last year.
“We are the envy of many places of the world because of the funding we have,” said Josh Millspaugh. “We are successful because of the hunters and anglers and the system we have. I can’t think of one hunter or angler that I have heard talking about something like this.”
Millspaugh, the Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Montana, said there’s not a lot of nuance with the proposed legislation.
“I think most people realize it’s a bad idea,” he said. “A really, really bad idea.”
He said that in addition to hurting literally every state, the funds from Pittman-Robinson and a similar trust fund for angling, the Dingell-Johnson fund, helps support state conservation and fish and wildlife departments at the state level.
“We just finished up a large study, and on average, Pittman-Robertson funds about 20 percent of those departments. So if the funding was cut, most states would instantly face huge funding gaps at their state fish and wildlife departments,” Millspaugh said.
That percentage is even higher in the West when both of the funds are combined.
“These programs have been extraordinarily popular and successful, and it’s one of those taxes where anglers and hunters see a direct value in conservation,” Millspaugh said. “It’s a poor, poor idea. Really, I’m surprised to see it even come forward because it’s such a bad idea.”
Several different reports about the legislation, including one by Huffington Post, said that it could not find one conservation or hunting group willing to support the idea of repealing the federal excise tax, which would wipe out the conservation funds.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a group based in Montana with strong local connections in most states, categorically opposes the legislation, said Kaden McArthur, who works on congressional affairs for the organization in Washington, D.C.
“To my knowledge, there was absolutely no outreach from Congress to the outdoors community,” McArthur said, calling the bill “reckless.”
“Hunters and anglers are rightfully proud of their contributions to conservation and the swift objections to this bill highlights the passion they have,” McArthur said.
He said most hunters and anglers support the idea of user-based fees going back to preserve and conserve habitat and species. Those conservation efforts since 1937 have helped bring white-tail deer, elk and turkey populations back from the brink of collapse, he said.
“We’re quite proud of Pittman-Robertson and to replace it with something not effective is just bad,” McArthur said.
He said most groups push for more conservation and more habitat as a way to enjoy the outdoors more.
“Backcountry Hunters and Anglers views this as a messaging bill about firearms, but it’s a serious misstep because it did not concern hunting and conservation, and it shows an ignorance of hunters and anglers,” McArthur said.
He said the group doesn’t take positions on bills regarding the Second Amendment, and is focused on hunting, fishing, outdoors and conservation. Because of that, he said he doesn’t believe his group will try to work with the legislation, instead will just oppose it.
“The bill really isn’t relevant, except that it has conservation and hunting in the crosshairs,” McArthur said.
Some members of Congress have pushed back that the legislation would still keep conservation, but the change would move funding to the revenues generated by off-shore oil and gas leasing. A move like that would make many conservation proposals just one of many things that rely on the same money for funding. Others point out that even in the best-case scenario, the funding would translate to a reduction of at least 50 percent from its current level.
“I can’t imagine how you would replace the funding effectively,” Millspaugh said.
The effects of the bill could reach far beyond just hunters, anglers and gun owners. Montana’s second-largest industry is tourism, and the interest it draws is national. With less money going toward conservation and habitat preservation, there could be a diminishing of resources to attract tourists for things like wildlife viewing.
“I don’t think you can separate the two issues,” Millspaugh said. “This would have a cascading effect because it would lead to an inability to manage wildlife conservation, and it would not be as attractive to out-of-state visitors. This is a slippery slope. It’s not just about hunting and anglers.”