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Gun tax supports wildlife, world class hunting

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The Montana Legislature is leveling one of the most aggressive attacks on public hunters we’ve ever seen under the guise of protecting gun rights. 

HJ 5, sponsored by Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Lolo, states that taxing firearms is unconstitutional, and unenforceable. Apparently, Rep. Tschida and supporters of this measure don’t like Montana’s abundant wildlife, the habitat that supports it and the world-class hunting we all enjoy. 

That’s because we’ve had a tax on firearms for 84 years. It’s called the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, most commonly known to hunters as the Pittman-Robertson Act. It’s named after the two visionaries in Congress who passed the measure, and it’s one of the most successful programs in our nation’s history. 

The Pittman-Robertson fund was passed by Congress in the throes of the Great Depression. Hunters stepped up when times were incredibly tough and said they were willing to be taxed for something they value – wildlife. That takes habitat. 

In the eight decades since, those funds have conserved key wildlife refuges. We’ve used it for habitat restoration. And it funds state wildlife agencies whose biologists employ scientific management. The program has strict sideboards on how the funding can used, and that accounts for its success. 

In total “PR” funds have pumped more than $18.8 billion into state wildlife agencies. The results have been nothing short of miraculous for restoring wildlife after the utter destruction caused by habitat degradation and market hunting in the 19th Century. 

In Montana at the turn of the 20th century, there were about 5,000 elk left. Today we have an estimated 170,000 elk. Deer were almost wiped out too, and antelope were saved only because a few ranchers protected the last remaining herds. Hunters joined landowners and state officials in conservation efforts that continue today. 

We use PR funds as matching dollars for our best state-based conservation and access program, Habitat Montana, to complete habitat purchases. Just look at Montana’s system of world-class game ranges, which provide winter range for deer, elk and other wildlife, and public hunting access those public lands provide. This wildlife abundance didn’t just happen. It took a lot of hard work by hunters, who are happy to pay the tax. 

I personally have a cabinet full of rifles and shotguns that I paid the 11 percent PR tax on. I’m glad to – because I get to use those guns every year on deer, elk, antelope and upland bird hunts. What good are a bunch of guns without abundant wildlife and public access? 

This measure states “that the taxation of privately held guns is unconstitutional and does not have the power of law and is, therefore, unenforceable.” It reads like a trial attorney’s dream. This is an open invitation for people who are opposed to hunting to sue the state and prevent us from receiving our PR funds – which make up a huge portion of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks budget. 

HJ 5 shows that when hunters don’t pay attention and stand up for our best conservation programs, they’re open for attack. Don’t let anyone who supports this measure tell you they’re for hunters. In fact, they’re working to destroy our sporting traditions. 

Nick Gevock is a lifelong hunter who serves as conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. 

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