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Know the West

Hunting for conservation dollars

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


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.

This time, the agency association is recruiting 20 leaders from the outdoor industry, conservation, agriculture and energy to meet three times over the next year to track down some serious financial support outside the hook-and-bullet crowd. That includes urging industries that impact wildlife habitat to pitch in more. Regan is optimistic, arguing that we know more about the value of wildlife, clean air and water and outdoor recreation than before. "If we could help people see that, then we could have a really powerful coalition."

State wildlife agencies are also casting for solutions. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks weathered an 8 percent drop in license revenue between 2009 and 2013, forcing it to close a lab studying a serious fish disease, downsize its truck fleet, and reduce shooting-range funding. An advisory group recommends a license fee increase for Montana residents, reducing discounts for seniors, veterans and others, and hiking prices more frequently than every 10 years. In the long term, the state may find ways to get non-hunters and anglers to pay, too.

Idaho Fish and Game, which hasn't increased license fees since 2005, may have to start cutting programs next year. It has, however, created a program to conserve nongame species through voluntary tax contributions and special wildlife license plates, which together provide about 1 percent of the agency's budget. Arizona and Colorado, meanwhile, send $10 million and $44 million of lottery money respectively to their wildlife and parks departments each year. But the latter was not enough to rescue Colorado Parks and Wildlife from $10 million in cuts this summer. Small sales taxes, though unlikely to be popular given the recent economic doldrums, seem closer to a solution. Missouri's voters decided to fund two thirds of its wildlife agency through an eighth of a percent sales tax in 1976. Arkansas did the same in the '90s.

Back in Wyoming, sportsmen contribute 70 to 80 percent of Game and Fish's budget through federal taxes, licenses and fees. But not only have license sales declined slightly since 2010, prices haven't budged in seven years. Fuel costs and employee health insurance keep rising, cutting into limited funds. Meanwhile, some 60 percent of the agency's budget goes to legally required programs, like reimbursing landowners for wildlife-caused damage and supplying forage for the elk feed grounds that spread the very diseases the department is fighting.

So in 2005, the Legislature began appropriating money for programs involving sensitive species like swift foxes, burrowing owls, freshwater mussels and pygmy rabbits, as well as those that address invasive species. The funds now cover 6 to 9 percent of Game and Fish's annual budget. Some conservationists worry about increased political meddling, but relying on fees also has its political downside: After all, the Legislature rejected price hikes last July, even though nearly every Wyoming hunting and fishing organization, plus the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Audubon, and some in the hospitality and energy industries supported them. "Nobody is opposed to taking care of Game and Fish, but sometimes throwing money at things isn't the right way," says state Rep. Allen Jaggi, R-Lyman, who voted against the increases.

Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, a controversial and influential sportsman's group with chapters throughout the West, likely helped scuttle the measure. It promotes expensive elk feed grounds, fights federal grizzly and wolf recovery programs, and is concerned that hunted species like mule deer aren't receiving enough attention from the agency. Executive Director Bob Wharff, who believes that "more money doesn't equate to healthy, robust wildlife populations," wants Game and Fish to do a cost-benefit analysis before sportsmen pay more, and argues that non-hunters should have to pay for the programs they want.

In response, nine major groups – including the National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, bow hunters, backcountry hunters and labor union members – formed the Wyoming Sportsmen's Alliance. "The Legislature didn't understand that we don't have our fish and wildlife by accident," says Catherine Thagard, the coordinator. Now the groups have a unified message: Wildlife is an investment, not an expense. Wildlife-related recreation brings Wyoming $1 billion each year, helping make recreation and tourism second only to oil and gas. "If Wyoming wildlife is worth watching," Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead told legislators in his February State of the State Address after meeting with the Alliance, "it is worth supporting."

The Legislature replied with a bill giving the game and fish commission the option to request state funds for employee health insurance and for grizzly bear management starting in 2017. But license fee increases failed for the second time, underscoring the need to diversify. "How long into the future are hunters and anglers going to be willing to foot most of the bill?" asks Game and Fish Deputy Director Kennedy. "We need to be looking at other sources of funding in addition to license revenue."

Gov. Mead is now promoting more general taxpayer funding, though conservation groups prefer a small sales tax, tourism tax, or an excise tax from Wyoming's vast energy industry. The agency is starting a public campaign this spring to explain its dilemma and seek money for wildlife conservation. "If we don't have these serious conversations about what wildlife funding looks like for the next 100 years," says Montana-based wildlife conservation consultant Ben Lamb, "we end up in a position where we lose species, and sportsmen lose big game opportunities."