Interview with a hunter

Waterfowl hunting season has begun in southern Nevada, including on many National Wildlife Refuges. Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge manager Rob Vinson sat down to discuss hunting on refuges and why it is essential for preserving wild lands. Above, ducks fly off over a lake on Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Tim Parker/USFWS

A conversation with Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge manager Rob Vinson on why hunting is essential for preserving wild lands

By Barbara Michel
October 11, 2017

Fall is here and hunters are combing the marshes and meadows of Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, located 80 miles north of Las Vegas, Nevada. Visitor services specialist Barbara Michel sat down for a conversation about hunting with the refuge's manager, Rob Vinson, an avid hunter and passionate conservationist, to discuss why hunting is essential for preserving wild lands.

Michel: Rob, tell me about your experience with hunting.

Vinson: I always had an affinity for hunting, and I’ve always loved ducks. I’ve been hunting since I was probably about six or seven years old. I talked my dad into taking me out. Since then, I’ve been hunting every single year, and it hasn’t gotten old yet. Now as a public servant, my job is to work for the people to ensure that the refuge and its resources are taken care of. My main concern is ducks and other migratory birds, and then we have the hunting as a side benefit. That’s the way I’ve always seen it. I need to make sure the refuge is in top condition and can support the ducks first.

Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge manager Rob Vinson, scans the sky for waterfowl during a hunting trip in 2016. Credit: Rob Vinson/USFWS

Michel: How were the hunting regulations at Pahranagat developed?

Vinson: Hunting regulations in general are developed for A) hunter safety and B) fair chase. [Note: ’Fair chase’ is the ethical, sportsmanlike hunting of wild game animals.] That’s why hunting is only allowed three days a week. For most of the week, ducks can use the marshes without being bothered. Because 70 percent of the refuge was purchased though funding from the Duck Stamp program, we’re obligated to offer hunting on the refuge. [Duck stamps were created in 1934 to protect wetlands that are vital to migratory waterfowl. Since the first duck stamp, sales have raised more than $950 million, helping to protect or restore nearly 6 million acres of habitat for birds and other wildlife. The stamps are $25 each and currently for sale at post offices, national wildlife refuges, and sporting goods stores throughout the country.]

Michel: On a state or national level, how is it determined which species can handle hunting pressure and which can’t? 

Vinson: The wildlife populations that are hunted are managed to take excess wildlife. A lot of the species we hunt are at very good population levels. The waterfowl hunting world has gone through changes upon changes in hunting regulations. For about 20 years we’ve used the adaptive harvest management program to determine hunting rules. In May, biologists running this program look the number of ponds in the breeding grounds. If there are a lot of May ponds, that means reproduction potential is really good. Then, they follow up on that by looking at mallard production and the breeding population.

"I’ve been hunting since I was probably about six or seven years old. I talked my dad into taking me out. Since then, I’ve been hunting every single year, and it hasn’t gotten old yet," says refuge manager Rob Vinson. Credit: Rob Vinson/USFWS

Michel: How do people know the breeding population?

Vinson: Biologists do aerial surveys every year in the prairie pothole region in the U.S. and Canada. They look at banding data, breeding pairs and May pond reproduction capabilities. All this information is compiled into a science-based decision-making tool which involves people and computers. This tool helps us make good, sound decisions about what the populations are and what seasons and bag limits [laws dictating the number of each species that is allowed to be hunted] have to be to ensure healthy populations.

Michel: Once bag limits are set, how are they enforced? Most hunting is done in rural areas where there’s no one around.

Vinson: There are compliance checks. When the state game warden, a refuge officer or I go out, we contact hunters and we look through their bags. We also look at shells, shotguns, and licenses. If a hunter has more birds than the number they’re allotted, they will get a citation.

Hunting of ducks, geese, coots, moorhens, and snipe is permitted on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays on Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge during the regular state season (with the exception of opening weekend, when hunting is allowed on Sunday). Dove hunting is permitted daily during the month of September. Starting October 1st, dove hunting is allowed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Quail and rabbit hunting is permitted on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays during the regular state season (with the exception of opening weekend, when hunting is allowed on Sunday). Credit: Tim Parker/USFWS

Michel: Since every year there are more people on the planet than ever before, some people think that an increase in hunters might result in more animals being taken than the wildlife populations can safely handle. How do you respond to that?

Vinson: Even though we have more people than ever before, less of them are out hunting. Less duck stamps and hunting licenses are being sold. In Nevada, duck stamp sales peaked in 1971, when 15,029 stamps were sold in the state. At that time, the population of Nevada was around 500,000. In 2011 (the most recent data available) just 6,360 stamps were sold, despite Nevada’s population having ballooned to 2.9 million. Since 1987, less than one percent of Nevada residents purchased a duck stamp. And here’s the kicker: the average taxpayer pays $1.84 per year for conservation. Sportsmen and women spend hundreds of dollars a year on conservation. If you remove hunters from the equation, we lose a lot of money that supports conservation.

The 2017-2018 Federal Duck Stamp features a trio of Canada geese. Art by James Hautman of Chaska, Minn. Credit: USFWS

Michel: Where does that money for conservation from the sportsmen and women come from?

Vinson: When people buy ammunition, guns, fishing tackle and rods, they pay excise taxes. That tax revenue goes to a fund that pays for wildlife conservation. For example, a good duck hunting shotgun costs around $1,000 and a case of ammunition is around $150. Thanks to the Pittman-Robertson tax, 11 percent of that purchase ($166.50) is diverted to a fund for wildlife conservation. That money is redistributed to the states.

Michel: If someone is personally opposed to hunting but still wants to help provide needed money to wildlife conservation efforts, what can they do?

Vinson: Well, there’s obviously the duck stamp. You can buy a duck stamp even if you’re not a hunter.

Michel: I don’t think the duck stamp is very well known amongst non-hunters.

Vinson: Right. And it should be. If you consider yourself a conservationist, you should be willing to pay for a duck stamp. You don’t have to be a hunter to pay to support conservation. You can buy a hunting license if you’re not a hunter. If you buy a fishing or hunting license, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to hunt or fish. That just means you’re putting money directly into that state’s wildlife conservation. Without hunting revenues, most states would be unable to maintain programs that sustain healthy populations of fish and wildlife. Healthy wetlands support much more than just the ducks that people hunt. They’re also home to plants, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, and tons of birds. They’re incredibly diverse.

Michel: If someone is interested in getting in to hunting, what can they do as a complete novice?

Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge spans a variety of habitats, including rough uneven terrain, deep waters, marshes, and dense stands of vegetation. Hunting difficulty varies by area, and hunters should consider their own abilities and limitations before using the refuge. Credit: Tim Parker/USFWS

Vinson: To get skills, the Nevada Department of Wildlife has workshops for new hunters. They have pronghorn, deer, and trapping workshops, which were created for hunting recruitment and retention. States are putting a lot of dollars into making these workshops really useful. And you can find many classes online.

Michel: So usually it’s encouraged that novice hunters get into hunting?

Vinson: Absolutely. As a new hunter, you’re going to start with a 10-12-hour hunter education class. That gets you background on gun safety, shooting zone safety, basics on your firearm, and bullets. After you complete the class, you can buy your hunting license. You only have to take that class once a lifetime. After that, it’s just getting out there and learning.

Michel: Is hunting expensive to get into?

Vinson: Unfortunately, yes. Waterfowl hunting is really expensive right now because it seems to be one of the ‘in’ things to do.

Michel: Is there anything I missed that you think people should know?

Vinson: I encourage people to get educated before making a final decision about whether to hunt or not hunt. Do some fact checking. Don’t just look at one guy and think all hunters are terrible. Understand why we’re hunting and what hunting does for conservation. You might not necessarily agree with it, but with the amount of money it brings in and the conservation it supports, it’s the best thing we have going right now.

Barbara Michel

Barbara Michel

About the author...

Barbara Michel is the visitor services specialist at Pahranagat and Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuges in southern Nevada. You can usually find her wandering around outside, looking at wildlife and listening to podcasts.