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for people who care about the West

Put your money where your mouth is

It’s time for environmentalists to fund predators in the same way that hunters and anglers do.


George Edwards is a pragmatic, easy-going man with a difficult task: compensating ranchers who have lost livestock to a growing population of wolves. He runs the Montana Livestock Reduction and Mitigation Board, a new agency that deals with wolf predation. The agency tries to reduce wolf/livestock conflicts and may someday help ranchers find ways to better live with the wolves that depend upon private lands for their survival. So far, though, most of its missions are on hold, because all of its scant funding is being used to pay for wolf-killed livestock.

Edwards -- like many livestock producers and a growing number of other rural Western interests -- is frustrated. Not only does he not have enough money to mitigate all the effects of wolves roaming private land, but he also believes that the brunt of the costs are being borne by the very same folks who are being impacted the most – ranchers and hunters. Ranchers pay with their livestock; hunters, through licenses and taxes on firearms, pay for the wildlife habitat and the game herds that feed the wolves, whether they want to or not. With the exception of Defenders of Wildlife, which has paid out $1.2 million over 22 years to compensate ranchers for livestock lost to predators, so-called non-consumptive wildlife groups – the birdwatchers, hikers and environmental groups -- have not directly offered any money for wolf-mitigation efforts or to purchase or restore habitat. Except through filing increasingly unpopular lawsuits, these groups end up with little voice in the policy making process.

“These people (environmentalists) have money to spend on lawsuits to prevent anybody from managing these wolves,” a Montana Department of Livestock employee recently told me, “but they never offer a dollar to pay for the damage they cause.” 

The losers in all of this are the predators themselves.

It was the money from the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act taxes on firearms and ammunition that paid for the restoration of big game herds after their near-extirpation in the late 19th century. That game, in turn, has sustained the current wolf reintroduction program. Hunting licenses pay for the state wildlife biologists, and for the habitat and winter range purchases that support the herds. Waterfowl stamp sale revenues bought 5.2 million acres of the federal wildlife refuge system, lands that provide habitat for an estimated one in three of every endangered or threatened species in this country. Taken together, the Pittman-Robertson taxes, the sale of state and federal waterfowl stamps, and the revenue from hunting and fishing license sales contribute an estimated $4.7 million dollars every day to conservation.

Those contributions are simply not matched by wildlife and animal-rights advocates from other groups, whose collective membership numbers in the tens of millions. Yes, they pay federal taxes, which also go into the wildlife pot. But the money is spread so far out that each wildlife lover ends up paying a fraction of a penny for each dollar that a hunter or angler contributes to the cause. Meanwhile, year after year, anti-hunting and allegedly pro-wildlife groups bemoan hunters’ influence over wildlife management, and celebrate the decline in hunter numbers. Yet they offer no methods to replace the lost wildlife and habitat revenues that result from those declines.

As a result, there are only two constituencies that have any real skin in the game of wolf recovery: ranchers and other landowners, and hunters. Policies for dealing with wolves tend to speak to the concerns of those groups. And that is a shame, because the policies are becoming increasingly ugly. Over the course of several weeks in late 2008, for instance, wildlife officials killed all 27 members of the Hog Heaven wolf pack in Montana’s Flathead Valley. The pack had killed some cattle, and since wildlife officials now believe that killing just the leaders of a pack only disperses the underlings to feed on more cattle elsewhere, they took out all the animals. Idaho Fish and Game Department officials, meanwhile, took the unprecedented stance of saying they would “respond aggressively to chronic depredation” on game animals.

It is only a matter of time before hunting interests across the West demand that wolf numbers be controlled whenever big game numbers fall, just as Alaskan sportsmen have done. State game and fish agencies, which rely on hunter license dollars, can hardly be expected to resist that demand. It should not be this way.  

Solutions have been proposed in the past, only to be shot down. The 1998 Conservation and Reinvestment Act, which would have provided $2.8 billion per year for conservation from royalties on offshore oil and gas, was a landmark failure. The Teaming for Wildlife tax, an excise tax on all outdoor-related gear, crashed into opposition from the Republican “no-new taxes” Congress of the mid-1990s. Jodi Stemler, of Denver, Colo., who has worked on wildlife funding issues for the Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation, remembers that, “There was opposition from some of the outdoor industry who said, ‘No, we have a lot of people who buy hiking boots or outdoor gear as a fashion statement, and never go outdoors. And not everybody who spends time outdoors cares about wildlife.’” She added that efforts to fund wildlife conservation with non-game sources have always struggled. “In Colorado, we had the ‘Go Wild for Wildlife’ tax check off, a great idea, great intentions, but pretty soon, everybody wanted in on it, from domestic violence on out. The competing interest groups caused the money to be spread too thin.”

Timm Kaminsky – who has worked on wildlife issues in the West for decades -- has promoted one of the most promising solutions. Since 1995, he has advocated for the creation of a “carnivore stamp” based on the Federal Migratory Bird stamps that waterfowl hunters purchase with their hunting licenses. “We have these extraordinary examples, with organizations like Ducks Unlimited, or the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation,” says Kaminsky. “Right now, you have billions of dollars generated every year, by only about 2 million hunters, and you have at least 60 million people who enjoy watching the wildlife that lives or is supported by those preserved wetlands and other habitat.”

Kaminsky’s goal is to create a way for non-hunters to support the wildlife that they revere. “If you took the 10 principle conservation organizations in Canada and the U.S., and you dropped, say, 2 million of their members, and the rest put up $20 for a carnivore stamp, you would have … $200 million dollars. ... With that amount, we could dramatically shrink carnivore conflicts all over the country.” Landowners and wildlife agencies would then be able to afford innovative and non-lethal methods of protecting livestock from predators, for example, like employing extra range riders, putting up electric fence, or using trained dogs and cracker shells to keep wolves at bay.

The result could be dramatic in other ways, too. Sportsmen would shed some of the burden of paying for non-game wildlife, and non-hunting conservationists would have a real stake -- and a real voice -- in the game. But the first shift would be with the landowners and ranchers. “We must be long past the notion now that public lands are large enough to support large populations of wildlife,” says Kaminsky. “Our most important, healthiest, landscapes are in private hands, and most of them are working landscapes. ... A carnivore stamp represents a public-private partnership where we recognize that, yes, we have a moral imperative to preserve wildlife, and that imperative extends to the people, too.”

Critics say that the idea is far-fetched, even as they acknowledge how desperate the situation is becoming. Laurie Shaffer, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Federal Duck Stamp Office, says that, in her experience, people don’t buy what they don’t have to. “What you are talking about is a goodwill stamp, or what we would call a ‘Cinderella Stamp,’ which has no other use than as a collector’s piece.” The duck stamp succeeds, she says, because you must have it to hunt waterfowl.

Wyoming already has a version of such a stamp, called the Wildlife Damage Management Stamp. “It hasn’t been a great success at all,” says Kent Drake, Wyoming Department of Agriculture’s predator management coordinator. Yet, the stamp is only sold through the outlets that also sell fishing and hunting licenses, and the people it’s intended for may not be aware of its existence. The current stamp has a drawing of a raccoon raiding a hen’s nest, a far cry from what Kaminsky envisions for the carnivore stamp, with artwork of wolves, polar bears, jaguars and the like selected from artist competitions.

Kaminsky acknowledges that the stamp idea won’t be brought to fruition by the feds. “The people working in those jobs,” he says, “don’t have the sense of urgency that we see every day on the ground.” But until the feds are ready to take on such a program, he says, he will keep pushing the idea, undeterred by skeptics. “There are enough people looking for a mechanism to translate their interest in wildlife into real work to protect them,” he says. “We’ve had all the conflicts between the rural and the urban on this issue that we can stand.”

Suzanne Stone, of the Idaho office of Defenders of Wildlife, says she is not familiar enough with the idea of the carnivore stamp to know if it would work or not. “But we need to bring all the ideas to the table now,” she says. “We have to find a way for all the people to have responsibility. Right now we are stalled, jammed into two groups, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is focused on the hunting community exclusively.” Stone says that she suspects that many state game managers and hunters like the status quo. “They don’t want to have to share anything, and they don’t want to consider the desires of constituents other than hunters. But there is a much broader issue here, and that is whether the hunting community will remain the only support system for wildlife,” she says. “I’m just looking forward to the day when the Idaho Fish and Game has a meeting and somebody other than hunters shows up.”

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].