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
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Executive Director Reports To: Board of Directors Compensation: $75,000 to $80,000, plus generous benefits and paid leave. Funding for relocation expenses available. Classification:...
  • WATER DIRECTOR
    Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis. Application review will begin on April 2, 2021 and will continue until the position has been filled....
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • VIRGINIA SPENCER DAVIS FELLOWSHIP
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is offering a fellowship for early-career journalists interested in...
  • COLORADO WILD PUBLIC LANDS VIDEO CONTEST
    Please submit your video of 30 seconds or less, taken on public lands, to [email protected] by May 15th for a chance to win in one...
  • WMAN NETWORK COORDINATOR
    WESTERN MINING ACTION NETWORK (WMAN) CONTRACT OPPORTUNITY CLOSING DATE: Feb. 19, 2021 WMAN is seeking a team member to coordinate the various network activities to...
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING TRAIL AMBASSADORS FOR THE SUMMER OF 2021
    Friends of the Inyo's Trail Ambassadors (TAs) support the Inyo, Sierra, & Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests and other partners by providing positive public service, outreach, interpretation,...
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • SENIOR PROGRAM MANAGER, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION & ENERGY
    The National Parks Conservation Association, a 100-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization and the nation's leading voice for national parks seeks a Senior Program Manager, Landscape Conservation...
  • BACKCOUNTRY AND FRONTCOUNTRY STEWARDSHIP CREW MEMBERS
    The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hiring a crew of ambassadors to work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to educate visitors on...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATURAL HISTORY INSTITUTE
    The Executive Director is the chief executive officer of the Natural History Institute (NHI). The Executive Director has broad authority to lead and manage the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...