Gun owners across the U.S. continued their unprecedented spending spree in 2014, buying firearms and ammunition at a record clip and, whether they knew it or not, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into wildlife conservation programs.

The federal excise tax on new firearms, ammunition and archery gear - collected at the manufacturer’s level - jumped to $824 million in 2014, up from the all-time high of $812 million in 2013 and more than triple the amount from a decade ago, according to recent federal data.

This summer, all that gun and ammo tax raised in 2014 is being doled out to state wildlife agencies across the country by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including projects to help moose, pheasants, deer and waterfowl in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will get a whopping

$24.9 million in 2015 based on last year’s gun and ammo sales - that’s the most ever, up from $23.3 million in 2014, more than double the state’s $11.2 million in 2012 and more than three times the $7 million the state got in 2006.

That money - so-called Pittman-Robertson funds - will be used to protect important wildlife habitat, count animals for population surveys, research wildlife health issues and buy and improve land to create wildlife management areas open for public hunting.

“It’s been an absolute boon for habitat programs the last few years. We’re doing more things than we ever could before,” said Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The Obama bump

New gun and ammunition sales across the U.S. have surged since 2008, with the increase often attributed to President Barack Obama’s election. It appears that gun owners, fearing Washington might enact stronger anti-gun legislation with a Democrat in the White House, started hoarding new guns and ammo just in case.

The massive increase in gun and ammo purchases, and in the federal tax revenue, has benefited wildlife, hunters, birdwatchers and others who relish nature.

“The level of gun and ammunition sales we’ve seen in recent years, which we’ve never had before, has been a real boost to state wildlife agencies and to wildlife habitat and restoration across the country,” said Jim Hodgson, regional chief of wildlife and sport fish restoration for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

It’s also been a big boost for recreational shooters, providing designated money for shooting ranges and helping fund firearms safety and education programs.

The Obama fear factor appeared to level off in 2010 and 2011, as did gun and ammo sales. But then, as Obama was up for re-election in 2012, and after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, sales skyrocketed again, with the gun and ammo tax revenue doubling by 2014. Ammunition has become a leading contributor, and some retailers ran out of some popular ammunition sizes - or had to impose sales limits - as shooters bought them up at a frantic pace.

Some experts predicted that pace would slow in 2014 and that gun and ammo sales would drop. That didn’t happen, but the pace of growth certainly slowed, from 46 percent and 43 percent the previous two years to just 1.4 percent.

Early indications from gun and ammo sales this year show tax revenues down from 2014, Hodgson said, but still far above pre-Obama levels. Through the first six months of fiscal 2015, revenue from the federal tax is down $200 million from last year’s record clip, but still on par with 2012, Hodgson noted.

“If we don’t see it drop we have at least seen a plateau,” Hodgson said. “We’re probably looking at somewhere between 2012 and 2013 numbers” for 2015.

Moose, wolves, deer and more

The state gets notice of the annual amount of federal excise tax revenue, finds the matching money from state sources, and then can spend the money as needed. Each project must be approved by the feds, however, and must be related to wildlife. The Minnesota Legislature must approve the state funds for the projects.

In Minnesota, the huge bump in federal money has helped pay for land acquisition across the state, from pheasant habitat in the farm region to deer habitat in the north - especially wildlife management areas that are open to public hunting. But the money also can be used to “enhance” those areas, giving the DNR needed funding to tackle a backlog of work that can make current land more productive. That could be as extensive as logging or using intentional fires to encourage prairie plants and animals, or as simple as mowing trails for hunters to walk on.

The gun tax also helps pay for habitat restoration and creation, including in Northeastern Minnesota where efforts are underway to see what habitat moose favor most as scientists work to find ways to help the big animals as the population dwindles.

The federal money also helps pay for population surveys, including the state’s efforts to count wolves, aerial deer surveys, fisher and marten winter-tracking surveys, bear population management and waterfowl surveys. Those efforts not only help determine population totals but also are used to set hunting seasons.

Federal wildlife funds are helping pay for a moose-deer interaction study to find out more about the relationship of two similar animals that - in far Northeastern Minnesota - use the same habitat.

Moose are severely impacted by a brainworm that is carried by deer, but is harmless to deer. Yet the cycle of how the brainworm gets into moose is not well known. The brainworm must first pass through a snail, and it’s never been clear how moose end up swallowing snails.

“As long as it’s for actual habitat acquisition or work, if it directly applies to wildlife, we can use the federal money to do things we otherwise couldn’t do. We would never have this kind of funding at just the state level,” said Heather Kieweg, the Minnesota DNR’s federal assistance coordinator.

“It’s become so much a part of the base of what we do, so important to fund our day-to-day work for wildlife, that it sometimes becomes hard to tease out exactly how important it is. It becomes a big part of the base of our Game and Fish Fund that pays for everything.”

Depression-era idea

While the scale of gun and ammo purchases has been unprecedented in the past three years, the idea of taxing guns and ammo dates back to the Great Depression when the state and federal agencies charged with helping restore wildlife populations had run out of money.

The federal gun and ammo tax became law in 1937, sponsored by Sen. Key Pittman of Nevada and Rep. A. Willis Robertson of Virginia, and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Pittman-Robertson Act created a 10 percent excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition. The tax was increased to 11 percent a few years later.

Also called the Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, the federal tax came at a time when wildlife populations had dwindled while states had little or no money to protect habitat or start any recovery programs.

The law has been renewed and updated several times. Congress has voted to sequester, or temporarily freeze, some of the money for budget balancing purposes, although by law they can’t spend it on anything else.

There’s never been any serious attempt to get rid of or divert the tax which both gun buyers and gun makers have accepted. Since its inception, more than $9 billion has been collected from gun and ammo manufacturers and awarded to states for wildlife conservation programs, hunter education and shooting projects and programs.

The tax is administered by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the Department of the Treasury, which then turns the money over to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The distribution of the fund is complicated, with some set aside for specific hunter safety education programs and shooting sports projects and the rest distributed based half on the geographic size of the state and half on the number of hunting licenses sold in the state.

The federal money comes with a hitch: States must match every $3 in federal gun tax revenue with $1 raised within the state. For 70 years, most states had no problem matching the federal money by using revenue for hunting and fishing license sales.

But since the explosion in federal money began in 2009, some states are having a hard time keeping up, Hodgson said.

So far, no state has had to turn back the federal money “but some are definitely worried that, if this pace keeps up, they won’t be able to raise their match through traditional means,” Hodgson said.

Minnesota is in a better position to match the federal money thanks to the state’s own sources of outdoor funding and continued robust license sales. Minnesota’s Outdoor Heritage Fund, funded through a portion of the state’s sales tax, adds extra money to help the state match federal dollars.

Fishing has similar tax

The Sport Fish Restoration Act, commonly referred to as the Dingell-Johnson Act, was sponsored by Sen. Edwin Johnson of Colorado and Rep. John Dingell Sr. of Michigan and passed on Aug. 9, 1950. It was modeled after the Pittman-Robertson law to provide fisheries grants to states.

A 10 percent federal tax is imposed at the manufacturer’s level for fishing equipment, along with import duties on fishing tackle, yachts and pleasure craft, with the revenue put into a fund along with a portion of the fuel tax attributable to small engines and motorboats. The money is distributed to states based on their size and license sales.