Hunting for conservation dollars

State wildlife agencies struggle to broaden funding as their duties expand.

  • A mule deer hunter in Montana, where license revenue is down 8 percent from five years ago, and fee discounts for senior citizens and veterans may be decreased.

    Tony Bynum

Red Creek Ranch in southwest Wyoming is an out-of-the-way paradise for desert songbirds and sage grouse, and provides essential winter range for elk, antelope and mule deer. Tucked among 70,000 acres of public land, its namesake creek harbors rare Colorado River cutthroat trout. Wyoming's Game and Fish Department has been working on watershed restoration there for 20 years. Even so, the ranch looks like a prime spot for vacation cabins and has potential for oil and gas development. So two years ago the agency began working with Red Creek's owner to put 4,000 acres of his property under a conservation easement.

The transaction was set to happen this year. But last July, the Legislature rejected a fee increase for hunting and fishing licenses, which supply just over half of Game and Fish's funding. Without the 13 to 33 percent hike on deer and elk licenses, the agency was forced to slash its $71.5 million budget by 6.4 percent, on top of a nearly 3 percent cut last year. And the easement program, vital to protecting habitat connectivity and public access, lost nearly all of its funding.

There were plenty of other casualties, too: fish stocking, hatchery upgrades, hiring for 18 vacant jobs, and educational outreach efforts. Invasive weed treatments, prescribed burns and tree plantings have also slowed. As state employees spend more time chasing grant money, non-governmental groups are plugging holes in important programs. Reversing mule deer declines is a major priority for Wyoming Game and Fish, for example, but a hunting group called the Muley Fanatic Foundation had to donate $150,000 to save a new deer study after the state slashed its biological research budget by close to 30 percent.

Wyoming's problems reflect a national trend. For over 100 years, hunters and anglers have financed state wildlife agencies by buying licenses and tags. But hunting and fishing in the U.S. have declined since the mid-'80s. Despite a slight uptick in recent years, revenue hasn't kept pace with agencies' ever-expanding duties, from habitat restoration and rare and endangered species to managing wildlife diseases, energy development and expanding predator populations. "We're just at a place in history where the needs are greater," says Ron Regan, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. "Agencies are having a hard time funding the full breadth of the work that they do."

Some states have found new sources of money, but Wyoming, Montana and others are just beginning to grapple with the problem – and few are dodging shortfalls completely. Now, several states are considering asking taxpayers for more money, or encouraging wildlife-watching hikers and tourists to pitch in. That won't be easy, but failure may hamstring agencies during a crucial time for wildlife.  "When we spend money on a (wildlife management area) and a dad or mom is able to take their son or daughter out there to hunt, fish or see a bald eagle for the first time, what's the value of that?" asks Wyoming Game and Fish Deputy Director John Kennedy. "It's priceless. That's our future … We're not selling widgets."

Since New York sold the first deer license for $1 in 1864, hunters and anglers have put billions into wildlife conservation. The 1937 Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act provides another major source of funding through a 10 or 11 percent federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition manufacturers, which is divided between states based on acreage and number of hunters. States provide an additional 25 percent in matching funds, mostly from hunting and fishing fees. Other federal measures later added similar taxes on fishing, boating and archery supplies. Depending on the year, these federal funds together provide approximately 6 to 40 percent of Western wildlife agency budgets, on top of the one-third to two-thirds covered by license and tag fees.

While that money helps agencies manage all species, those that are hunted or fished get the most. Hoping to broaden financial support for nongame critters, in 1990 the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies spearheaded an effort to create a quarter to 5 percent manufacturer excise tax on gear like tents, sleeping bags and mountain bikes, and participated in a similar push in 1996. But congressional members were reluctant to promote taxes, and the now-defunct Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America, then the U.S.'s largest outdoor industry association, opposed them too, arguing that wildlife agencies had little to do with the varieties of recreation that would have been taxed.

Richard Lebolt
Richard Lebolt
May 12, 2014 06:57 AM
I think that it's time for other backcountry users to support wildlife agencies, instead of relying on hunters and fishers to support the whole program.
Patrick Alexander
Patrick Alexander Subscriber
May 12, 2014 11:13 AM
I think decreased funding of wildlife agencies via hunting and fishing licenses can only be a good thing. Governmental agencies are not immune from looking after the interests of whoever pays the bills--and when hunters & fishers are paying, that means land management aimed at increasing populations of whatever it is people like to kill. This often puts wildlife agencies directly at odds with conservation. Fish stocking, predator culls (which are -still- happening), introduction of invasive game species and working to preserve and expand populations of invasive game species already here (oryx, ibex, ring-necked pheasants, brown trout, etc.), damaging plant communities in order to make them more suitable for game, etc. Of course, that's not all wildlife agencies do and much of the other work they engage in is laudable and should be continued if possible. However, I think being paid by hunters and fishers has pushed wildlife agencies a long distance in the wrong direction. I hope that we can figure out how to preserve the good work that these agencies do and fund it adequately while cutting out the "it's only worth conserving if people like to kill it" mindset and ending the various anti-conservation programs.

On the other hand, a part of me worries that the wildlife agencies will simply figure out how to get the rest of us to foot the bill for them to continue on in the same direction. That should not happen, and I hope it will not. However, this would make me wary of any attempt to tax or otherwise extract money for wildlife agencies from those of us who are not hunters or fishers. I do not want to pay for game-based land management.
Dominic Aiello
Dominic Aiello
May 12, 2014 11:28 AM
Hunters and anglers have largely been footing the bill for wildlife and conservation, yet we're continually under attack by environmental and animal rights groups and they have so far refused to assist in funding wildlife management (minus the rare exception of Defenders of Wildlife compensating ranchers for wolf kills). For example the HSUS has successfully in many places eliminated cougar hunting or eliminated the only effective method of hunting them (hounds). This in turns cost wildlife agencies money via cougar management. It also cost them money from lost tag fees. In addition, it (in some places, like Oregon) has caused a decline in deer and elk numbers which again, cost the agency more money.

We're seeing this right now in Maine, the HSUS is funding a ballot box measure to drastically reducing bear hunting.

Less opportunity, less chance for fair probability of success, more rules equates to less participation. This means less wildlife/conservation money.

Another example is the cost of the wolf. Sportsmen dollars funded their re-introduction, continue to pay for their management, and yet we're continually attacked for trying to keep their numbers under control through hunting.

Sportsmen deserve better.

This is obviously not the entire issue, but it certainly is part.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
May 13, 2014 04:00 PM
Lets raise the grazing fees on our federal and state land, to the normal going rate, and use the millions of dollars to hire people to manage the land better, and improve habitat.
Robert Laybourn
Robert Laybourn Subscriber
May 13, 2014 05:03 PM
Funding has been a recurrent problem for WGFD for many years.
Helen McGinnis
Helen McGinnis
May 14, 2014 06:02 AM
Nonhunters should help pay for state wildlife programs. State wildlife agencies and their commissioners are forced to devote most of their resources to a limited number of game species desired by hunters, because hunters pay the bills with their licenses and with the taxes they pay on guns, ammunition, bows & arrows. Popular game animals such as deer and elk are managed almost as if they are free-ranging livestock. Just as ranchers strive to protect their cattle and sheep from predators, state wildlife agencies “manage” natural predators such as wolves, cougars and coyotes by reducing their numbers—often drastically—in the hope of making more game available to hunters. Nonhunters have little influence in predator management decisions in their respective states because they don’t pay for wildlife management. Financial support by nonhunters for wildlife programs should be mandatory because voluntary contributions won’t be sufficient. Legal hunters have no choice; they must purchase hunting licenses and pay taxes on guns & ammo.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
May 14, 2014 08:40 AM
Hunters pay when game damages crops, maybe wildlife watcher should pay for their favorite species that they dictate state wildlife agencies must care for. For some reason certain species generate lots of Disney/Bambi type interest in certain segments of society. Wolves, cougars, coyotes, wolverines, lynx, bears. Predators can cost thousands of dollars a piece in lost revenue from game tags. Maybe if predator fans had to pay the cost of consumed game and the cost of the management of predators enthusiasm would be tempered with a dose of reality. As it is now, lots of biology via ballot box amounts to an unfunded mandate.
Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
May 23, 2014 08:50 AM
Its time states and other user groups start paying also. Its time states realize the tourist dollars and quality of life depends on a good enviroment and public land not townhouses.