Wyoming Game and Fish mulls alternative sources of funding

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Changes in recent years have made it harder for the Wyoming Game and Fish to predict how much money it will receive from year-to-year.

Nearly 85 percent of the department’s revenue hinges on how many hunters and anglers purchase licenses and how much guns, ammo, boats or other equipment they buy. If you include grants from hunter and angler groups, the department relies on more than 90 percent of their funding from consumptive participants in outdoor sports.

The good news: Sales of licenses, stamps, permits and tags for most species in the state are currently trending up. But nationwide, the number of those hunting and fishing is down. The 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation (NSFHWAR) reported participation in hunting and fishing has dropped by half in the past 50 years.

John Kennedy, deputy director of internal operations for the Game and Fish, says the department would like more consistency in its revenue streams in the future.

“We do need some alternative, stable, consistent funding source for the Game and Fish,” Kennedy said at a Game and Fish Commission meeting in Cody in March. “We just don’t have a lot of opportunities and great ideas to accomplish it.”

Until this year, some of the department’s funding came from the state’s general fund, but that money dried up.

The Legislature allowed the Game and Fish to raise license fees slightly to make up for the lost revenue. But even so, Game and Fish will have fewer dollars to provide the same services, said Scott Talbott, director of the Game and Fish. Talbott wonders if the commission should approach the Legislature and ask for another increase.

“One thing we often do is breeze [past] our traditional funding, which is license fees,” Talbott said. “I’m not sure that Wyoming residents wouldn’t willingly step up to support the agency again.”

Raising fees can be politically risky, especially in an environment of declining participation.

The Game and Fish commission has debated other ideas, such as how to get non-consumptive users — those that hike, bike and view wildlife — to pony up and help pay for managing Wyoming’s wildlife. Participation in hiking, biking, adventure sports and outdoor photography has been rapidly increasing in popularity according to the NSFHWAR. For example, more than four times more Americans go birdwatching than hunting, according to the report.

There are fees to enter state parks, but there are no other mandatory fees to enjoy the work of the department’s hard labor paid for by hunters and anglers.

“Why not have [non-consumptive users] buy our conservation stamp?” said commissioner Mike Schmid, suggesting the department mount a campaign to get residents to voluntarily buy the stamp at the March commission meeting.

“A lot of people buy duck stamps every year even though they’re not waterfowl hunters; I’d think it would be a real simple way to add to our budget,” Schmid said.

However, former president of the commission, Keith Culver of Newcastle, said he doubts a voluntary campaign is worth the time it takes to implement.

“We could start a huge campaign and at the end of the year we could make maybe $1,000,” Culver said. “I don’t think it’s worth our effort.”

Previous attempts to encourage voluntary purchases of conservation stamps have been disappointing, according to Renny MacKay, a spokesman for the Game and Fish.

“We pulled the data to see how many people bought a conservation stamp without purchasing a hunting and fishing license since last year — and zero people did,” MacKay said in response to commissioners’ inquiries.

“There’s room to grow then,” new commission president Mark Anselmi quipped.

While new forms of taxes aren’t popular, finding revenue sources from non-consumptive users may be necessary in the coming years.

“I think people are well-intentioned, but when it comes to writing a check, things change,” said commissioner Peter Dube, of Buffalo. “It’s going to have to be a mandatory thing of some sort.”

David Willms — a policy advisor for Gov. Matt Mead who holds a degree in wildlife biology and a law degree — has extensively studied how other states have made moves to draw revenue from non-consumptive users.

“Though the ‘user pays’ model has been an effective management tool for several generations, our conservation and political leaders must recognize that with all these additional strains on wildlife agencies, we cannot continue relying on sportsmen to fund all wildlife management,” Willms wrote in a law review article in 2014. “Other users, such as the agriculture and energy industries, tourists, bikers, backpackers, and wildlife photographers must contribute as well.”

Willms cited advantages to industry and agriculture — such as not dealing with game animals — for which the Game and Fish are forced to pay. Two big-ticket items are wildlife damage payments to farmers and ranchers and money spent on non-game species listed as threatened or endangered species. Both programs cost the Game and Fish millions to fund.

In Missouri, voters passed a ballot initiative adding a 1 percent sales tax to go toward managing wildlife, Wilms said. It took a decade for the state to get the measure passed, but it now has a consistent revenue stream specifically for wildlife issues. Colorado uses some of their lottery revenue for wildlife issues.

In an ingenious effort to raise money for their backlog of maintenance issues, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas has started a program coined “Beer for Deer.” The Superior Bathhouse Brewery is the first brewery in a U.S. National Park, utilizing 144-degree thermal spring water to create several styles of craft beer, with sales going toward wildlife.

The cost of keeping up with research and management is increasing quickly for the Game and Fish. For example, the cost of damage mitigation more than doubled between 2011 and 2013 alone.

Wyoming spent over $4.4 million in 2017 on non-game programs and an additional $1.3 million for the 2017 aquatic invasive species program. Much of the non-game research helps the state avoid adverse effects of an ESA listing decision, according to Willms. Species like sage grouse and Yellowstone cutthroat trout are important subjects of current department programs and, with the right to manage wolves and grizzlies, the Game and Fish also inherited all the funding involved in managing previously listed species.

“Instead of burdening sportsmen with funding programs like these in their entirety, sportsmen should share the cost of funding these programs with others who benefit from them,” Willms said in the report.

Recent attempts at making non-consumptive revenue mandatory include a joint resolution passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Mead earlier this month that asks the federal government to charge a “wildlife conservation fee” at the entrances of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

“That money would come back to the state for wildlife management,” said director Talbott, who supports the idea.

There’s other federal legislation pending that might help out the department: The Recover America’s Wildlife Act would divide $1.3 billion among the states for species of great concern and conservation needs. Wyoming could receive $22 million if the bill passes, Talbott said.

The measure is currently being debated in Congress.

While Wyoming is currently bucking the trend of declines in hunting and angling, 25 percent of their funds come from federal excise taxes, which are based on the declining national trend. And with uncertain future sales of guns, ammo and fishing equipment, the Game and Fish is sure to continue their search for new and consistent forms of funding, including revenue from non-consumptive users.

“There’s not a best single way [to tax non-consumptive users],” Willms said. “It needs to be a bundle of sticks approach to tap into everybody. Like an investment portfolio, the way to build stability is having a diverse portfolio.”

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