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.

Kris Loman
Kris Loman
Aug 13, 2013 06:07 PM
How could you possibly overlook the elephant in the room? Hunters do not want the rest of us to share in the cost, because it inevitably means they will have to share the control as well, and they will fight that tooth and nail. Despite the fact that a tiny and shrinking fraction of the population kills stuff for entertainment, that minority has had a lock on state wildlife departments. That MUST change. The rest of us must demand a seat at the table, and we must demand the opportunity to fund true wildlife care. Not provide more access and enticement to the few killers. If I knew my money would go to true habitat conservation, not hunting ground enhancement, I would gladly buy a photographer's license, viewer license, whatever you want to call it.
Mark Bell
Mark Bell
Aug 14, 2013 11:51 AM
Kris Perhaps you ougth to put away your agenda and look at the elephant. Contribute to willife managemnt cause it is the right thing to do. Ignorance is bliss!
Adam Neff
Adam Neff
Aug 14, 2013 03:52 PM
Wow, kill stuff for entertainment? You must have been sitting on the couch watching too much TV, the Nuge is not reality just reality TV. What we're really doing is feeding our families by providing local, free-range, all organic, low-fat, high protein, ethically slaughter meat thus contributing to a smaller carbon footprint to help ensure that both our and your children continue to have wildlife to enjoy. I would gladly support additional taxes on the nature watching free loaders who currently don't pay their share when it comes to our wildlife management.
Charles Fox
Charles Fox Subscriber
Aug 15, 2013 10:58 AM
It's encouraging to read about Wyoming's efforts to understand the decline of mule deer, but it's really no surprise to hear that the "shoot on sight" state is having problems conserving it's wildlife. It must be painful and difficult for a state agency that has always existed to promote the exploitation of wildlife try to conserve wildlife.

State Game Departments are essentially obsolete. Their mission doesn't address current needs and values. Most people would prefer to watch wildlife and enjoy it in a non-destructive manner that has minimal impacts. What states need now are Wildlife Departments that are staffed with wildlife biologists who actually influence policy decisions for the benefit of wildlife and the people who value that wildlife.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Aug 15, 2013 12:00 PM
Agree with them or not Kris’ and Charles’ views reflect a significant portion of the population, thankfully we know via the last census that hunter numbers overall are experiencing a resurgence, particularly for big game. What is more worrisome is that biased, uninformed, opinions such as they hold are setting policy via elected officials, and some policies are having a deleterious effect on wildlife and hunting.

I took a peek at the costs for licenses in Wyoming, they are consistent with neighboring states, and I doubt the Fish and Game department in Wyoming is facing long term financial instability. Montana and Idaho however are feeling the pinch from decreasing animals to hunt on public land. Sure there are lots of elk on farms and ranches, but on the remote and public Forests and Wildernesses Areas populations are reflected in success rates, license sales, and ultimately budgets and salaries.

Wrongly state agencies are held responsible for decisions made in Washington regarding prolific predators.

In Colorado sales of limited licenses are up this year. Out of state hunters are voting with their pocketbooks. One has to wonder however for how long. As less charismatic species disappear with climate change there will be increased efforts to save what’s left, and as always it will be hunters that pay for conservation.