Wildlife agencies face the limits of sportsmen-funded conservation


June’s edition of Wyoming Wildlife magazine describes how mule deer have been declining in parts of the West for decades. For the Wyoming Range herd, poor habitat conditions, drought, harsh winters, and energy development may all be to blame. But pinpointing exactly what’s harming one of Wyoming’s largest herds requires capturing them by shooting a net from a helicopter, giving them physicals, and fitting them with radio collars.

The project isn’t cheap, but it’s important—and in the future similar research could be at risk because, like many agencies in the state, the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish lost 6.5 percent of its budget for fiscal year 2014. That’s $4.6 million dollars that would have gone to hiring staff, funding wildlife research and monitoring, upgrade fish hatcheries, stocking fish, restoring habitat, providing hunter access to private land, and running wildlife and conservation education programs in public schools. Even the agency’s award-winning Wyoming Wildlife magazine is getting pared back.

Mule deer are declining in Wyoming, and budget cuts put future research on them at risk.

According to Wyoming Wildlife Federation director Steve Kilpatrick, if the department’s budget doesn’t come back soon, science-based wildlife management will suffer. “If you don’t maintain the quantity and quality of habitat, you don’t have wildlife, and without wildlife and people interested in it, conservation loses,” he said.

The state-mandated budget cuts are especially painful because just this winter the Wyoming legislature declined Game and Fish’s request to raise revenue by increasing license fees, which amounted to increases around 15 dollars, or less, for resident elk, deer and antelope tags, but more for non-residents. Wyoming’s user fees don’t account for inflation, so the department periodically asks the legislature for a license fee increase to keep up with rising expenses, something that’s worked in Wyoming since the 1930s.

But this year, in spite of 12 sportsmen and conservation groups like Wyoming Trout Unlimited, Wyoming Wildlife Federation, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and the Muley Fanatic Foundation of Wyoming asking the state to charge more for hunting and fishing, Wyoming’s legislature had no appetite for putting more expenses on the backs of sportsmen. It would be a politically unpopular move in this time of intense budget scrutiny.

Wyoming Game and Fish director Scott Talbot thinks there were a lot of factors at play including a down economy and diminished trust in government. Plus, “I’m not sure that we came forth and demonstrated the need,” he said.

Wyoming Game and Fish’s plight is indicative of a growing dilemma for wildlife management agencies in sparsely populated, but wildlife-rich, Western states. Wildlife and habitat threats are growing, and agencies are increasingly charged with managing non-game species, dealing with wildlife diseases and invasive species, overseeing controversial predator reintroductions, and helping bring  young people into the outdoors. Meanwhile, the public’s outdoor interests are changing and becoming more diverse. Game and fish departments aren’t just hook and bullet agencies, though hunters and anglers still provide much of their funding.

In Wyoming, 80 percent of game and fish’s budget comes from license fees, as well as federal taxes on hunting and fishing gear. But that license pool is shrinking. Ironically, wildlife managers have had to reduce Wyoming’s mule deer and antelope licenses as herds have declined, cutting into the very revenue that would help with studying those declines and improving habitat for the species.

With growing demands on wildlife agencies and no sign of substantial increases in hunting and fishing license sales, user-fee increases for hunters and anglers probably don’t amount to a long-term solution. Fees can only rise so high before they deter the out-of-staters who bring in the majority of license money, or threaten America’s egalitarian hunting and angling ethos.

Idaho Fish and Game is also facing financial challenges, losing funding for conservation programs as license sales decline. Last summer they hosted a wildlife summit to get public input on dealing with the problem, and this winter the game commission voted to look at how other states have channeled outdoor gear taxes into fish and wildlife departments.

Montana is also showing signs that it might decide to cope with declining fish and wildlife revenues. Game commissioner Rob Moody told the Billings Gazette that they need to confront the fact that many tourists visit the state to view wildlife, but "none of those folks pay a cent to fund the wildlife, unless they buy a hunting or fishing license.”

People are thinking about a whole host of alternative ways to raise funds for wildlife agencies, everything from fees levied from tourism operations, like snowmobile tours, to lottery funds, and license plates sales, or maybe getting a funding stream from mineral severance taxes.

Not everyone is open to broadening the funding base of fish and game agencies. Some, like the Wyoming Liberty Group see the department’s goal of “conserving wildlife – serving people” as “mission creep,” and a sign that it’s time to rein in the agency.

But Kilpatrick sees the challenge of broadening the funding base as an opportunity for hunters and anglers to reach out to other members of the wildlife appreciating and recreational community, who might also take pride in the tradition of funding wildlife conservation and management. After all, both groups share the sense that game and fish departments oversee something priceless.

“We don’t judge our lifestyle based on price stickers, we base it on the ability to ramble across an open landscape and see one of the greatest wildlife resources in the nation,” he said.

Sarah Jane Keller is the High Country News editorial fellow. Mule deer photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.