A cutthroat trout captured during a Wyoming Game and Fish Department survey in the Gros Ventres River. Lawmakers will debate the department's funding in the 2014 budget session of the Wyoming Legislature.  (Mark Gocke photo/Courtesy Wyoming Game and Fish — click to enlarge)

A cutthroat trout captured during a Wyoming Game and Fish Department survey in the Gros Ventres River. Lawmakers will debate the department’s funding in the 2014 budget session of the Wyoming Legislature. (Mark Gocke photo/Courtesy Wyoming Game and Fish)

Sportsmen to lawmakers: Invest in Wyoming Game and Fish Department

by Dustin Bleizeffer
— December 17, 2013

After striking out with the 2013 Legislature, a dozen or so hunting, fishing and wildlife enthusiast groups will try again in 2014 to convince Wyoming lawmakers to approve a hike in license fees at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

An interim legislative committee has tentatively agreed to introduce a pair of bills to do just that, as well as another bill that would shift to the state’s General Fund the costs of grizzly bear management, the elk winter feedground program and employee health insurance costs from Game and Fish’s largely user-fee supported budget.

Many in the sporting community see the measures as short-term relief for the department’s recently-slashed budget, and an opportunity to spark a discussion about a long-needed change to the department’s budget formula. For nearly 80 years, hunters and fisherman footed the majority of the department’s budget (more than half comes from license fees) while the department’s charge has grown to include programs that go far beyond merely managing wildlife for fishing and hunting.

According to state law, the Game and Fish commission sets spending policy for the game species portion of the agency’s budget, which comes from about $60 million in license fees and other revenue. The state General Fund pays a scant $9.5 million in non-game species funding out of the $71.5 million budget for the agency.  However, the agency can’t raise user license fees without the approval of the legislature, which makes it difficult to keep up with rising costs.

“The dilemma that I see, is we have a world-class wildlife resource here that is, and becomes, more and more expensive to support and maintain. Yet we have a pretty small human population and even smaller population of hunters and anglers (to support the Game and Fish Department budget),” said Steve Kilpatrick, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.

Budget cuts

Some in the sportsmen community feel the Wyoming Game and Fish Department came under siege during the 2013 legislative session — particularly by the ultra-conservative wing of the state House of Representatives — when lawmakers and the governor applied an everyone must feel the pain budget cut of 6.5 percent across most state agencies. While Game and Fish officials knew they were expected to examine their budget closely to apply efficiencies, the department and its user-supported community had entered the 2013 legislative session optimistic in gaining approval for what had been a fairly routine increase to hunting and fishing license fees, to keep up with inflation and the growing demands on wildlife and their habitats.

The license fee increase request was roundly rejected, however, and the $6.6 million in combined cuts to the Game and Fish Department’s 2013 and 2014 budgets — without the offset of the license fee increase — forced the closure of public lands access and youth recruitment programs, and resulted in a smaller staff. Many fear the cuts, in addition to pending cuts for 2015 and beyond, may seriously hamstring the amount of in-the-field enforcement and biology research, potentially diminishing Wyoming’s wildlife resource, which sportsmen argue is at the core of Wyoming’s $2.9 billion annual tourism and travel industry.

A helicopter crew fires a net gun at a moose during a Wyoming Game & Fish population health survey. Once the moose is captured, the crew descends to the ground to take blood and tissue samples that lab scientists use to analyze the fitness of the animal. (Mark Gocke photo/Courtesy Wyoming Game and Fish — click to enlarge)

A helicopter crew fires a net gun at a moose during a Wyoming Game & Fish population health survey. Once the moose is captured, the crew descends to the ground to take blood and tissue samples to analyze the fitness of the animal. Moose, elk, deer, sheep, fish, and other game species generate the majority of the agency’s budget.  (Mark Gocke photo/Courtesy Wyoming Game and Fish — click to enlarge)

The budget turnabout ignited anger among many sportsmen. At a Wyoming Game and Fish commission meeting in Saratoga in July, dozens of hunting and wildlife advocates showed up in support of the department and to decry what some say amounted to crippling one of the state’s best revenue-generators.

“Our elected officials have failed us, they have failed the department, they have failed sportsmen, they failed hunters and most important they failed fish and wildlife in our state,” Neil Thagard, western outreach director for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), said at the July hearing of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department commission.

Rep. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman), who serves on the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources interim committee, is among several voices in the Wyoming House who remains unconvinced that Wyoming Game and Fish has made all the budget efficiencies it can achieve. He said he’s submitted a list of 17 questions regarding budget efficiencies and priorities, and the department hasn’t answered them to his satisfaction.

“We have continually asked that we’d like a list of priorities from high to low, the low ones we’ll put on hold because we’re in a bit of a recession,” Jaggi told WyoFile.

Jaggi said he believes some big game herds lack the trophy bucks and bulls that attract hunters, and if the department had a more clear set of priorities it might be more compelled to apply good biological management that results in more trophy-quality animals.

“I’m saying we have asked for their list of priorities and a cost-benefit analysis of their programs, and if they’re wonderful and everything that they can be, then I’m happy,” but Game and Fish hasn’t done that to his satisfaction, Jaggi said. “Are you spending the (legislative appropriation and user fees) as efficiently and as accountable as you can be?”

The committee’s co-chairman Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) said it’s impossible to quantify a cost-benefit analysis of all of the department‘s programs. And how do you prioritize one habitat conservation program over a species research program? Is the department expected to say that one fishery preservation effort is less valuable than a game management program?

“The problem I have is a lot of this is intangible,” said Burns.

Burns continually notes that the commission-based Wyoming Game and Fish and the Wyoming Department of Transportation are the only two agencies that pick up the cost of state employee salary raises and the increasing costs of medical insurance, while the state covers those expenses for all other state agencies.

The last license fee hike increase was approved in 2008, then the legislature gave state employees raises in 2009 — a cost that Wyoming Game and Fish had to pay for out of its own revenues rather than dipping into the state’s General Fund, like other state agencies.

“Now the governor is talking about putting in his budget additional salary increases. Again, Game and Fish has not been given any way to absorb that cost,” said Burns.

It’s no secret that when the legislature appropriates money to any program or any agency, lawmakers demand a certain level of scrutiny over the management. Some have suggested there’s some unease with the Game and Fish Department’s relative autonomy, given that much of its budget comes from user fees, and much of its spending is dictated by the Game and Fish Commission. Lawmakers now demand more scrutiny over the department’s entire budget.

In the 2013 legislative session, Rep. Sue Wallis (R-Recluse) introduced a bill to require the Game and Fish and Department of Transportation to present more information about their budgets to the Joint Appropriations Committee. Burns said he was initially opposed to the bill, but now he sees its value.

“The more the legislature knows about it (the agencies’ budgets) the better the chance that the legislature will allow Game and Fish to meet their financial need,” Burns said.

Building a broader coalition

Sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts have spent the past year trying to coordinate among a dozen or so organizations to send a single message to Wyoming lawmakers: Don’t think of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s budget merely as spending, but as a vital investment in the state’s economy that will pay dividends. At least that’s the general message articulated by a large and diverse segment of society that often disagrees — passionately — with one another over myriad policies to manage the wildlife and landscapes that define so much of Wyoming’s identity and economy.

“We’re trying to demonstrate a unified voice,” said Matthew Copeland, public lands organizer for Wyoming Wildlife Federation. “Last year, we were late to the game raising the importance of this issue to the legislative body.”

The Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance was formed soon after the 2013 Legislative session, attempting to do just that; coordinate a unified voice among sportsmen’s groups that hadn’t been so unified in the past when it comes to statewide wildlife, hunting and fishing issues.

“All Wyomingites both benefit and have a stake in how wildlife is managed, whether they’re a consumptive user or non-consumptive user, such as bird watchers,” said Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance coordinator Catherine Thagard.

A Wyoming Game & Fish biologist attaches a radio collar on a tranquilized grizzly bear. (Mark Gocke photo/Courtesy Wyoming Game and Fish — click to enlarge)

A Wyoming Game & Fish biologist attaches a radio collar on a tranquilized grizzly bear. (Mark Gocke photo/Courtesy Wyoming Game and Fish — click to enlarge)

Several representatives of organizations participating in the alliance visited with Gov. Matt Mead earlier this month, asking him to support the new legislative measure to hike license fees and shift grizzly management and health insurance costs to the General Fund. (Since grizzlies can’t be hunted, they don’t generate license fees to cover their management.) Sportsmen representatives who attended the meeting said they also discussed with Gov. Mead the potential to form a blue ribbon task force, or some other statewide initiative, to discuss how more of the non-consumptive wildlife users — bird-watchers, farmers, ranchers, and tourism businesses — can contribute to the Game and Fish budget.

“(Gov. Mead) favors the move toward more general funding for Game and Fish,” said Renny MacKay, spokesman for Gov. Mead. MacKay said the governor is in support of proposals to transfer the cost of grizzly management and health insurance to the General Fund.

Sportsmen groups still differ on particular Game and Fish programs while trying to hone a coordinated message and effort to engage the legislature. And they’re also having some success in partnering with outside groups from the tourism, agriculture and energy industries.

Jim Magagna, executive director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said his organization recently passed a resolution in support of legislation that would move grizzly bear management to the General Fund. “We feel that clearly shouldn’t be on the backs of sportsmen,” he said.

As for the other measures — health insurance and license fee increases — the Stock Growers are staying out of that debate.

Other entities normally silent on the Game and Fish budget are now speaking out. A spokesman for Encana Oil & Gas recently spoke in favor of making sure Wyoming Game and Fish is fully funded to manage not only for hunting and fishing, but to continue its work in a timely manner to measure, analyze and comment on the effects of energy development on wildlife — a key ingredient in approving oil, natural gas, uranium and other industrial projects.

“(Game and Fish Department’s) timely and educated input is critical to the overall NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act)  process,” said Encana spokesman Paul Ulrich. “I believe Wyoming Game and Fish needs increased funding to meet current issues the state is faced with and the future issues we know will come.”

Related stories:

Hunters & Anglers: Restore Wyoming Game and Fish budget, August 27, 2013, Dustin Bleizeffer
Sportsmen: Cuts to Game and Fish threatens Wyoming’s wildlife, tourism economy, July 16, 2013, Dustin Bleizeffer
Lawmakers cut back on wildlife, fire budgets, February 12, 2013, by Gregory Nickerson
It’s going to cost more to hunt and fish in Wyoming, December 11, 2012, by Geoffrey O’Gara

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. He has written about Wyoming’s energy industries for 15 years. You can reach him at (307) 577-6069 or (307) 267-3327, or email dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer

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Published on December 17, 2013

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Wyoming Native December 18, 2013 at 1:35 pm

One has to wonder if “representatives” like Allen Jaggi and Sue Wallis aren’t merely hamstringing WGF simply because they can? Jaggi’s comment about trophy quality animals implies that he knows better how to manage our wildlife than an entire State agency of animal biologists?!? Thankfully Bruce Burns seems to have more intelligent thoughts on the issue. I’m all for fiscal accountability, but it seems like some of these “representatives” on the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources committee still don’t understand how WGF differs in its funding from other State agencies. It’s a dangerous and petty game they are playing with one of Wyoming’s greatest assets.

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