Sportsmen: Cuts to Game and Fish threaten Wyoming’s wildlife, tourism economy
Sportsmen say that recent legislative actions threaten to permanently degrade Wyoming’s wildlife and robust hunting, fishing and wildlife resources — cutting Wyoming’s “core values.”
Some claim the cuts began when a wave of new state House representatives swept into a standing committee during the 2013 Legislative session. They derailed a deal to allow the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to raise license fees to meet the rising cost of managing wildlife, and to maintain hunting and fishing programs.
Since the 1930s, the department — which gets about 80 percent of the money it spends from such user fees — has gone to the Legislature every few years to get permission to adjust license fees. The last time the legislature approved a license fee increase was 2007.
Not only did the new cast of lawmakers say no to increasing user fees, but they imposed a 6.5 percent budget cut on the department’s spending, claiming that it is bloated and overly influenced by federal grant programs.
“It was a big turnover, and we quite frankly have some legislators on there that are anti-Game and Fish and they want to cut budgets,” said Kim Floyd, of the Wyoming Federation of Union Sportsmen.
“They (the freshmen legislators) are … in line with some organizations that really forced this on,” Floyd continued. “So the real issue is, does the resident sportsman know exactly what just happened, and does the resident sportsman understand how Game and Fish is funded?”
Rep. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman) told WyoFile he’s heard some of the charges leveled at new legislators in the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee. “I’m offended by that,” he said.
“The new members of the TRW committee looked, evaluated, listened, and made their own minds up,” Jaggi said. “I’m all for giving Game and Fish the money they need — if they’re spending it very efficiently and showing us that they’re doing it, not just telling us.”
Sportsmen react to cuts
Last week Wyoming Game and Fish commissioners met in Saratoga to approve — albeit reluctantly — a budget slashed by nearly $5 million, eliminating or severely cutting public access programs, education programs, and habitat improvement efforts.
“These cuts mean access to hunters and fishermen may not be available in the future,” Neil Thagard, western outreach director for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), told the commissioners.
Thagard presented the commission with a $10,000 check from TRCP, underscoring the group’s commitment to working with Wyoming Game and Fish to properly fund wildlife and habitat resources in Wyoming. Then he took aim at Wyoming legislators.
“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,” said Thagard.
More than half a dozen representatives of hunting, fishing and wildlife groups testified before the commission last week, expressing their concerns over the budget cuts forced upon the department by the Wyoming Legislature. They noted that wildlife and wildlife habitat are key drivers of Wyoming’s $2.9 billion in annual tourism and travel revenue.
Wyoming Game and Fish, with the backing of hunting, fishing and wildlife groups, say they need more revenue to properly manage resources that are under growing pressure each year from drought, invasive species, disease, energy and housing development, changing climate and increasingly intense wildfire seasons.
Sportsmen said that by forcing cuts and forbidding increased user fees, lawmakers are doing irreparable harm to wildlife and wildlife habitats.
“I believe the cuts facing Game and Fish are counterproductive. Effective management of our wildlife habitat and wild spaces is critical to our state and local economies. … Unlike a mineral resource, delay in investment in fish and wildlife results in degradation to that resource,” Matthew Copeland of the National Wildlife Federation told Wyoming Game and Fish commissioners.
Sportsmen groups say it’s time to reboot efforts to educate lawmakers and convince them that it takes more investment — not less — to maintain wildlife and habitat resources.
“It is apparent we did not have the desired effect,” Jim States, of Trout Unlimited’s Platte Valley chapter, and president of Voices of the Valley, said of last year’s effort to raise license fees. “However, we see more opportunities for organizations and Game and Fish to be more effective with the legislators in preparation for the next legislative sessions.”
The groups are likely to push for license fee increases in the upcoming budget session in January, but observers say it will be difficult to get the two-thirds vote required to get any such proposal to the floor for debate.
Some 14 wildlife and conservation groups signed a letter of support for license fee increases during the 2013 Legislative session this past winter. Representatives from those groups are still actively courting legislators. However, members say license fee increases are not their singular approach. They are also working hard to come up with ways to derive revenue from activities that either benefit from wildlife in non-consumptive ways, or degrade wildlife and wildlife habitat.
Skinning the budget
Wyoming Game and Fish has cut nearly $5 million from a budget of about $71 million. It has eliminated 18 positions, including nine mid-level supervisory positions.
“Reductions will result in decreased field presence for most field employees, including game wardens, wildlife investigators, fish and wildlife biologists, habitat management area maintenance crews, etc.,” the department stated in a March 2013 document estimating the results of budget cuts executed this month.
The cuts included postponing $463,000 in fish hatchery upgrades and reductions in fishery stocking in 2014. Some $350,000 was eliminated for conservation easements and land acquisitions to expand public access for fishing and hunting. Several public education and outreach programs — all of which were a direct response to public demand, according to Game and Fish director Scott Talbott — have been eliminated.
Unless sportsmen and Game and Fish department officials convince the legislature otherwise, the department will remain on track to forego license fee increases and make more cuts for the 2015 and 2016 fiscal budgets. According to Talbott, the department has already identified another $1.5 million in cuts to future budgets.
“We have looked very hard at our structure. We have proposed restructuring and reorganizing through major programs,” Talbott told WyoFile. “We’re cutting people, we’re cutting programs, we’re cutting positions. We’re a much different agency than we were a year ago.”
Talbott said he disagrees with those who say that increased hunting and fishing license fees would result in fewer licenses being sold. He noted that a non-resident elk draw four months ago attracted a 17,000-application overflow.
“Historically, when we raise fees we see a slight dip, a sticker shock if you will, then sales begin to grow,” said Talbott.
Jaggi noted that Wyoming’s economy was still booming when the legislature approved the last license fee increase in 2007. The state’s economy is very different today, he said, and he wants to see a cost-benefit analysis of how much is invested in each Game and Fish program and what Wyoming gets out of it.
“We need performance efficiency audits of all (Game and Fish) programs,” said Jaggi. “If that comes back to be that we are as efficient as we can be, then I’ll be all for a license increase. But it’s not going to be for a few years.”
Meanwhile, many sportsmen feel threatened that there’s more than just budget scrutiny behind the recent legislative actions. They say that any degradation in wildlife and wildlife habitat leaves landscapes open to energy development at a larger scale than might otherwise be justified with robust wildlife and wildlife habitat.
Jaggi said he doubts that any interruptions to field work forced by the current round of budget cuts would result in permanent degradation.
“I think we have enough safeguards in place. … I don’t think that’s going to happen carte blanche without anybody saying anything,” said Jaggi.
Platte Valley Habitat Partnership
Before voting on the trimmed-down fiscal year 2014 budget last week, the Wyoming Game and Fish commission struggled with whether to carry over $500,000 initially approved under the fiscal year 2013 budget for the Platte Valley Habitat Partnership.
Commissioner Aaron Clark wondered if there was some advantage to shifting a portion of the unspent allocation back to the department’s general budget.
But Tom Ryder, assistant chief of Game and Fish’s wildlife division, recommended against faltering on department’s commitment to the partnership. It took years of work to bring in the partners, and the collaboration is poised to attract matching money five to seven times the department’s seed money, he said.
Commissioner Charles C. Price of Daniel agreed. “If we start jerking this around at this point, we’re going to lose support,” Price said.
Jim States, of Trout Unlimited and Voices of the Valley, said that the collaborative process of the Platte Valley Habitat Partnership has successfully brought together stakeholders who initially were at odds.
“If we were to lose that funding at this stage, my concern is that would be tantamount to snatching failure from the jaws of success,” States told the commission. “If you are able to find a way to sustain that commitment through this effort we are committed to doing our part.”
The commission decided to maintain the $500,000 allocation in the 2014 fiscal year budget.
The Mule Deer Foundation announced a donation of $50,000 to the Platte Valley Habitat Partnership.
Letter to Wyoming lawmakers from wildlife, game and fishing NGOs
For more on this topic, also read these WyoFile stories:
— It’s going to cost more to hunt and fish in Wyoming, December 2012
— Lawmakers cut back on wildlife, fire budgets, February 2013
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