The Hill: Protect the American tradition of hunting Thanksgiving dinner

As CEO of the nation’s top organization for the conservation of the North American wild turkey and our hunting heritage, Thanksgiving holds a special place in my heart. It’s a time when our nation turns its attention to family, traditions and gratitude — all centered around breaking bread at the dinner table. Our legislators return to their home states and districts, and our president and the White House typically celebrate with a quiet meal and the pardoning of a lucky turkey.

Thanksgiving has been a foundational holiday in our nation since the very beginning. President George Washington issued a proclamation in 1789 naming one day in November as a public day of thanksgiving.

I love that the United States — from its founding days — has built gratefulness and thanksgiving into our intrinsic values. Today, we celebrate with parades, stuffing, cranberry sauce, football, outdoor fun, naps, and quality time with the people we love.

On a personal level, each year I gather with family and a few close friends at my home in Michigan. We quite often spend time afield in the morning hunting or hiking. Wild game is usually served for dinner.

As the leader of a nonprofit whose mission is to conserve the wild turkey and preserve America’s hunting heritage, Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity for me to share about the historic rebound of the wild turkey. Considered one of the greatest success stories in modern conservation, the wild turkey had reached dangerously low populations at the turn of the 20th Century. In 1937, a low point for the bird, legislators passed the Pittman-Robertson Act which placed a federal excise tax on sporting arms, ammunition and archery equipment. The funds from these taxes were, and are still used today, to help state fish and wildlife agencies conduct wildlife conservation efforts.

But more was needed to return wild turkeys to sustainable population levels. Conservationists and hunting enthusiasts founded the National Wild Turkey Federation in 1973 with an explicit goal of increasing our nation’s wild turkeys — and we did just that. Due to decades of proactive, science-based conservation work, research, strategic grant-giving and advocating for hunters’ rights, the NWTF helped increase the population of wild turkeys from about 1.3 million in the early ‘70s to more than 6 million wild turkeys today.

Our nation’s laws and regulations have a significant effect on what happens on the ground. Had it not been for the Pittman-Robertson Act nearly 80 years ago, wildlife agencies would not have received funding they desperately needed to kick-start proactive wildlife conservation. The same is true for helping ensure our nation’s hunters have the access and support they need to continue their American tradition.

But change is needed at the national level to modernize the Pittman-Roberson Act so that its funds may be used to also help attract and retain hunters and shooting sportsmen and women — who are a foundation of wildlife conservation. According to the 2016 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service fishing, hunting and wildlife-associated recreation survey, Americans participating in shooting sports, such as skeet shooting, increased while hunting participation declined. A decline in hunters means a drop in tax revenue going back to state agencies for conservation.

I encourage Congress to update the 80-year-old Pittman-Roberson Act so that its funds can be used not only to preserve our nation’s wildlife, but to also make hunting and shooting sports more accessible to Americans and introduce the sport to new enthusiasts. 

Like Thanksgiving, hunting is an American tradition that dates back to our nation’s first days. I’m thankful to still have national leaders who hunt, fish and support wildlife conservation. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has taken action to open up additional federal lands to hunting and public access for outdoor recreation. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is a turkey hunter, who has shown strong support for active forest management and a critical repair to forest fire funding.

As I’ve written about before, active forest management is critical in alleviating our nation’s crippling forest fires. Sec. Perdue appointed a wonderful new chief of the USDA Forest Service, Tony Tooke. I praise Tooke for his leadership in organizing the revised forest planning rule and developing several partnerships to increase active management on our national forests. Plus, he’s an avid turkey hunter. 

The NWTF supports legislative changes that alleviate devastating wildfires and improve forest health — which in turn improves wildlife habitat. Last week, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) introduced an act that would help accelerate forest management projects to improve forest health and keep jobs available. The Protect Collaboration for Healthier Forests Act would allow forest management projects being legally disputed to use a pilot program offering binding arbitration as an alternative — instead of lengthy litigation that can often take multiple years to resolve. This proposal will remove barriers to critical forest management work, while still allowing for collaboration.

This Thanksgiving, many families, like mine, will bring wild game they harvested to the dinner table. Whether its venison, wild turkey or duck, these all-American dishes are reminders of the connection between our land and our feasts. The connection runs even deeper when considering how hunters, anglers and recreational shooters fund about 80 percent of state fish and wildlife agencies’ conservation work.

I urge our representatives to continue championing their constituents who participate in the hunting and shooting sports — and thus contribute greatly to conserving wildlife and habitat that benefit all Americans. 

Rebecca Humphries is CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation, a nonprofit focused on enhancing wild turkey populations, as well as the continuation of hunting and quality wildlife habitat for countless species.