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.

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