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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Western Slope Conservation Center Paonia, CO WSCC seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking and a creative problem-solver. Position Summary: The Executive Director leads...
  • ARIZONA STATE DIRECTOR
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGEMENT/HOSPITALITY SERVICES
    Seasoned ranch manager of award-winning conservation ranch seeking position as nature reserve/resort or ranch manager. Visit philipmoonwalker.com for resume and certifications. Contact: [email protected]
  • PART-TIME OREGON GRANT WRITER
    Help advance rights for people, communities, and nature - Part-time grant writer. The Oregon Community Rights Network (ORCRN) has been active over the last six...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Utah Public Lands Program Director Location: Southern Utah Position: Full Time (40 hours per week) Supervisor: Conservation Director About us: The Grand Canyon...
  • FSBO PROPERTY-SOUTHEAST ARIZONA
    Located in an area steeped in history, this gentleman's ranch sits at the entrance to the renowned Cave Creek Canyon. Enjoy picturesque views of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • LAND CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    JOIN OUR TEAM! The New Mexico Land Conservancy in Santa Fe is seeking a Land Conservation Project Manager who will work to protect land and...
  • HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NP
    Comfortable home at foot of Boulder Mountain, on one fenced acre. Amazing views!
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • SECLUDED COLORADO HIDEAWAY
    This passive solar home sits on 2 lots and offers an abundance of privacy and views while being only 15 minutes to downtown Buena Vista....
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.