Wyoming Game and Fish remains at funding crossroads

— April 1, 2014

Kerry Drake
Kerry Drake

Wyoming has relied on hunters and anglers to fund the Game and Fish Department since the 1930s. It’s been a successful funding model, but it can’t be sustained in the future without making considerable revisions to how the agency does business.

That point was made clear at the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission’s budget meeting last Friday in Lander, during a discussion initiated by Commissioner Aaron Clark of Wheatland, who questioned why the agency’s revenue projections are often far off the mark.

“Our cost projections are usually fairly good,” Clark said. “We are lousy, absolutely horrible, at producing decent revenue projections. … We made some significant reductions [last year] based on some revenue projections that were pretty poor.”

Deputy Director John Kennedy agreed, but pointed out Game and Fish does not have a consistent revenue stream because the number of hunting and fishing licenses sold can vary greatly from year to year. The department was unable to obtain approval from the Legislature for a 10 percent fee hike supported by Wyoming’s sportsmen last year, even though the fees have not been increased since 2008.

The commission cut its budget more than $7 million by eliminating key positions, reducing money available for vital habitat and research projects, cutting the number of issues of its popular Wyoming Wildlife publication and eliminating its annual Youth Hunting Expo in Casper.

But revenue for the year was much higher than forecast because more hunting and fishing licenses were sold than expected, and the agency received a windfall from an unanticipated increase in a temporary tax on weapons and ammunition when gun sales soared.

The result is a cash flow reserve of more than $50 million, which reportedly has some mistakenly thinking Game and Fish has reversed the problems that led to the budget cuts. Actually, the agency’s high reserve — it tries to have about $17 million on hand at any given time — is just a snapshot of what the department had available at the end of fiscal year 2013. In reality, those reserves have either already been allocated or will be lost through inflation.

With the unpredictable ebb and flow of revenue, there are times — particularly September through November — when the department’s expenditures exceed revenue, and there is a negative cash flow.

“How do we feel about that?” Clark asked his fellow commissioners. “Should we demand that we never have a situation in this department where expenditures exceed revenue? … It’s not a very good business model.”

“We’re charged by statute to manage wildlife,” Chairman Richard Kourda of Lander noted. “Obviously we can’t do that on a negative cash flow.”

Commissioner Carrie Little of Leiter said she believes the department “should operate like any successful business and live within its means. … Our priority has to be a balanced budget.”

But it should be clear to both the commission and the public that by historically depending on license fees to pay for about 80 percent of its budget, Game and Fish is a government agency that has too many other factors to consider — like meeting its statutory obligations to manage the state’s wildlife — to be expected to be operated the way the private sector would do business.

One example of how to change the agency’s traditional funding model was the Legislature’s passage of Senate File 45, which was lobbied heavily by the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance, a new coalition of 10 organizations that united after the last license fee hike was rejected by lawmakers. The WySA wanted to expand Game and Fish’s ability to obtain more General Fund monies, so sportsmen’s dollars could be stretched further for projects that directly benefit wildlife.

SF 45 mandates that beginning in the 2017-18 biennial budget, the Game and Fish Commission will request funds from the state for grizzly bear management and to pay for its employees’ health insurance premiums. About $2 million and $4.8 million were spent on those items, respectively, in the current budget.

Kennedy explained the department’s $68.9 million budget for FY 2015-16, which was given initial approval by the commission in Lander, is essentially flat, like it has been for the past three years. The only additional money in the budget covers the 2 percent raise for state employees in the department, a built-in 3 percent inflation rate and some funding for deferred maintenance that is critical.

The deputy director presented a “worst case scenario” extended budget for the agency through Fiscal Year 2019 that did not restore any funding for programs that were cut or eliminated. It had a reserve balance of $25 million.

“This is not restoring research dollars, or putting money back on the ground for habitat projects,” Kennedy stressed. Clark called it “survival mode.”

Unbelievably, Carrie Little looked at the worst-case scenario budget and said, “This looks good to me.”

“It’s hard to get rid of programs, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do,” she declared. “I’m proud of the cuts we’ve made. We should be very conservative. When I’m looking at $25 million in reserves, I’m saying, ‘We’re still good.’”

Fortunately, Commissioner Mark Anselmi of Rock Springs had a very different take. “We’ve got to have operating money, but we’ve got research and habitat that needs to be addressed, too,” he said. “We can’t operate the best wildlife agency in the world and not fund habitat and research.”

Clark said while he raised the discussion about the stability of the funding model, “We don’t need to do anything drastic. We’ve got time to go to the public and go to the Legislature and our partners and say, ‘How do we make this thing work? How do we continue to provide the best services we can?’”

Kennedy agreed. “We’ve got some time to think this through,” he said.

But while there may be some time to develop the right solution, the commission still needs to be actively looking for non-traditional funding methods that involve people who have a vested interest in our wildlife but currently don’t contribute to funding Game and Fish.

Steve Kilpatrick, a veteran wildlife biologist with the department who has worked with the WySA organizations, said he and the groups “don’t feel we have the time” to wait to work on funding issues.

He said while it’s a move in the right direction, SF 45 is “simply a Band-aid” for the department’s funding woes. “All it does is give you the permission to ask. You have no idea if you’re going to get money, which is pretty scary to us. We stand ready to look at long-term, non-traditional funding and look forward to working with the commission.”

Kilpatrick suggested there may be a way to “tap into the wildlife viewing companies and the services they provide to people who simply come to see wildlife, and they don’t pay a dime to the [Game and Fish] system. …  Many are willing to pay; we just have to find a way to do that.”

Kilpatrick said he doesn’t want to call the long-time funding model broken. “I want to say, ‘Keep what we’ve got, but let’s improve it and expand it.’”

He also made a solid point about why it’s the right time for the commission and all stakeholders to address the funding issues. They can’t be left on the back burner.

“I’m worried that the Legislature the last two sessions said, ‘No, we don’t like the model. We don’t want to deal with it,’” he said. “If they’re not going to approve the current model, let’s find one that they will approve.”

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

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Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. How many acres does the G&F own across the state – how many bought and how many donated? Then designate them as ‘State’ land on the maps vs. the current identification as ‘private’.

  2. Hope- been there, done that. Tied of beating my head on a stone wall at those political GF Commission meetings. Since 1979.

    You are dead on about Wyo G&F being beholden to ” landowners” . In my field of view that is a euphemism for ranchers , the hobby ranchers , and the nouveau riche tax writedown rancher , who have collectively replaced the classic Cattle Barons. G & F has been led around by a chain and a brass ring in their nose put there by the Stockgrowers , for some time now …

  3. I would venture to say that most wardens and biologists would like nothing more than to manage on a purely scientific basis, but the political environment of today makes that impossible. I would challenge anyone to attend a G&F commission, public,or TRW meeting or attend a legislative session to see for themselves. Every time these professionals make a scientific recommendations they come under fire from special interest groups ranging from SFW to pro wolf groups to anti multi use groups like Western Watersheds. They also are statutorily required to cater to landowners who only have their personal interest in mind. Add the fact that several of our legislators are continually trying to strip our wardens and biologists of their ability to properly manage all species of wildlife. They do this largely to perpetuate their tea party ,anti government image for prospective voters. The G&F is political because they have no choice. Did you know this year our state legislature proposed a Bill that would make it a felony for a biologist to collect biological samples or collect biological data on private lands, including population data taken from the air? This would be a disaster for scientific management and preventing diseases like brucellosis from spreading to our cattle. It would be irresponsible for the G&F to not speak up when this type of legislation is proposed. Most people who complain have no idea what their politicians are up to and are too lazy to investigate. Before you run your mouth about the G&F, please educate yourself. After you educate yourself,get involved instead of passively letting a bunch of politicians think for you.

  4. I agree, special interest moneyed politics and shallow political journalism from the right or left can screw up data driven science for the common sense of the common good. Wether its wildlife biology, ecology, or climatology is irrelevant.

  5. RBD- I agree with most of what you say about the Wyo G&F today being a political entity compared to Wyo G&F of my youth , which really was an autonomous self-funded wildlife and hunting agency driven more by biology than money. They did not change with the times. I used to be a huge supporter. Not so today.

    Unfortunately , the politics is so meshed with G&F management these days— nowhere worse than the political appointees on the Commission in some recent terms —if we took the politics out of Wyo Game & Fish , the agency would die.

  6. I have pondered this issue for several days. I have followed this issue for several years as the G&F has tried to increase fees, yet at the same time, not really respond to the public is serves. It is not a simple issue, in my opinion. With both an inside and outside view of the Department, I think the G&F has lost its way and become a political organization vs an organization focused on managing and protecting our resources. I am not surprised, but disappointed.

    Ultimately, at the end of the day, I think the department has been mismanaged. How can you run any agency or business and not be able to react to your revenue inputs? How can the number of licenses vary so much year to year that the agency cannot manage it’s revenue stream? It almost reminds me of the State back in the early 1990’s when they adopted accrual accounting (called the GAAP adjustment) and suddenly came up with a bunch of revenue to spend because they adopted a different method of accounting. Is the G&F that management challenged that they cannot run their business? From Kerry’s investigation, that is what is sounds like. While Kerry’s observation is the typical liberal response – raise fees, waste more money – but I think the underlying issue is really mismanagement of the business. What we need is wildlife people focused on wildlife issues, not politics, as well as a compliment of business oriented people that can work together to right the ship, better budgeting, better fiscal management, better wildlife management. While I do not necessarily agree with the legislature, at the end of the day, I think that is what they are asking for before giving the G&F the keys to the bank.

    My thoughts as a long-time hunter, fisherman, outdoor, wildlife enthusiast.

  7. BillW— not sure what you are trying to tewll me here, with a cherry-picked off topic quote from TR , but you aimed it at someone who worked in hunting camps for 20 years and guided for ten and has always been active in hunting and wildlife management issues. I also sat at the front gate of the 110,000 acre Pitchfork Ranch west of Meeteetse to manage 400-plus deer , antelope , and elk hunters on that vast Greybull River holding for 45 – 60 days every autumn for 12 years, running what amounted to a private game check station while working for a hired Hunting Manager who patrolled the place. We worked tightly with the two local Game Wardens , lightening their load.

    I personally gave up on the hunting business years ago. The money and backbiting had corrupted it beyond belief, especially in the outfitter sector. So your point is……. ?

  8. I find it ironic that SFW is quotting Roosevelt below. I don’t often agree with High Country News, but they sure got it right in the article about SFW entitled “How “sportsmen” stabbed Theodore Roosevelt in the back”. Available at: https://www.hcn.org/blogs/range/sportsmen-stab-theodore-roosevelt-in-the-back

    The SFW playbook is clearly at play here. Step 1 starve the WGFD of funds, step 2 make the WGFD fiscally dependent on funds from SFW, step 3 ramrod an agenda that increases hunting opportunities for rich fat cats and SFW cronies, culminating with Step 5 reduced hunting opportunities for the common man.

    Hopefully the Wyoming sportsmen and our political leaders are not susceptible to these mafioso tacticts.

  9. And a fun note for everyone, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation just donated $45,000 to the WGFD Acesss program. A huge thank you to them for helping keep private lands open and out of the hands of outfitters and private hunting clubs. Tell me Bob, what are you contributing to wildlife and the people who enjoy it? I sure havn’t seen much out of SFW other than cheap talk for the last several years.

  10. I worked for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for 30 years, first as a Habitat Biologist in the 1970’s. I observed even back then we had many users of our Wildlife Habitat Management Units (birders primarily) who paid not a dime to preserve habitat even though they would have been happy to. There was no mechanism in place to allow them to do it. Later, as the Department’s Nongame Mammal Biologist in the 80’s and 90′, I spent sportsmen’s dollars every day to work on programs which should have been funded by the people who used the resource – people we classified as non-comsumptive users. Then, as now, I feel the user pays philosophy should be the solution to the Department’s funding issues. Sportsmen already pay, although they probably would do more if allowed to. How in good faith does the Legislature refuse them the chance to do that? Still, the Department will need to use new ways (besides Pittman-Robertson federal funding, license fees, and the habitat stamp) to collect fees from “non-comsumptive” wildlife users: birdwatchers, varmint shooters, photographers, campers, etc. Nothing new there, but the main impediment to progress seems to be legislative approval. Wildlife users all need to work on that.

  11. Well said Dewey. So many trophy hunters these days are too obsessed with “getting the highest score” that they miss all the other amazing wildlife the Game and Fish is statutarily required to manage. I guess the mountain blue bird, little brown bat, and great plains toad have no value to SFW and similar organizations. I hunt for meat, and could care less about “scoring”. I also spend a great deal of time participating in “non-consumptive” enjoyment of our wildlife. Like Dewey, I will remind everyone that the Wyoming Game and Fish is charged with managing all species in this state, and they cannot do that for free. The trophy hunter does not always have the whole ecosystem in mind, and certainly should not be the only voice in this argument.

  12. DeweyV, Here’s what Theodore Roosevelt said…..
    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who errs and comes up short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievements; and who, at the worst, if he fails at least fails while daring greatly,so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. “

  13. For anyone who cares about what Bob Wharff of SFW says on anything ….Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife is a political lobby organization before it ever puts on its wildlife habitat hat.

    Nearly 70 percent of their budget—dues paid by members , and donations— goes to lobbying, and most of that to Washington D.C. if I can believe what I have heard from disgruntled SFW members in Cody who left the club and started their own new sportsman’s guild .

    As such , SFW is primarily an elitist hunting club. It does more political advocating and baldfaced lobbying than , say , Boone & Crockett or Pope & Young, but at the end of the day it exists more for the wealthy elitist trophy hunter than the commoner General License resident hunter in Wyoming . Follow the money .

    Which is where my contention arises concerning SFW. Wharff and membership have this incredibly misguided notion that charismatic wildlife —-the herds of large ungulates like Elk, Deer, and Moose, plus other charismatic megafauna such as Bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain Goat, and even apex predators like Grizzlies, Black bears and Wolves —-exist primarily to be prey for human hunters. SFW is dedicated to seeing that all the people’s wildlife resource is skewed heavily towards hunting opportunities above all else…that those large 4-footed critter exiast primarily for our sporting pleasure. To SFW’s mind and advpocacy , protecting habitat or developing nonconsumptive wildlife resources for the sake of the animals very right to even exist is counterproductive. If we can’t hunt it , or put a hook in its mouth , we don’t really care about it. We just say we do.

    I adamantly remind Wharff that the nonconsumptive ” user” of Wyoming’s wildlife , such as wolf watchers and photographers , already pay a great deal towards wildlife conservation , on many vectors of revenue. ( I very much resent that term ” user” of wildlife if it applies to me taking photographs of Bighorn rams for my own enjoyment. But it does illustrate the bias that SFW lives by ). The wildlife of Wyoming is publically owned by everyone, and that includes nonresidents. No person or specific entity should have more say or blanket sway over CONSUMPTIVE uses of that wildlife ( hunting and fishing ) without passing thru the public process via the Game & Fish commission. To which end if a person wants to kill a big bull elk and thus remove that animal from the public resource trust, yes that person should pay an adjudicated price for that privilege. Especially trophy hunters. I feel strongly that Wyoming’s hunting licenses for trophy game are far too low in price , and the ways and means of distributing those too many of those coveted tags is politically driven by the elites . Conversely the licenses for the subsistence hunter or resident General licenses are about right in price but the seasons are too tight.

    Finally , I, too, would like to see a fully transparent accounting of SFW’s revenues and expenditures in the context of their activities here in Wyoming, in the regional federal offices, and mostly in Washington D.C.

    What would Teddy Roosevelt say ?

  14. Bob, I would love to see an audit of SFW. I hear you don’t keep any record of money in or out so Im sure the IRS would love to play. When I have watched you make promises that SFW will take care of things like the Expo I wanted to laugh. Such a joke. SFW has one goal in mind…privatized hunting. Not such a great deal for those of us who want to feed our families without paying a crazy access fee. Why don’t you come out from behind the smoke screen and just say what you want. I am tired of the bull.
    The fact is our Game and Fish is one of the best in the nation, but won’t stay that way for free. A ten percent fee increase amounts to 3 to 5 dollars more per tag. That’s not breaking the bank even for a lower middle class person like myself. Those dollars are worth every bit for access, quality research, and scientific management by professionals that know a great deal more about the subject than members of a corrupt trophy hunting organization. I sure hope people wake up before we turn into another pay to play state like Utah.

  15. Why doesn’t SFW do a cost/benefit analysis themselves and make their own recommendations for program cuts? Wait that would be unpopular and may reduce their membership and revenue. Welcome to the game of serving diverse customers.
    The WGFD is simply requesting to raise license fees in a manner that allows them to keep up with inflation. Which will continue to allow them to do the things they do.
    Does a cost/benefit analysis grow elk , stock a pheasant, catch a poacher, or enroll private land for access? No, the Wyoming Game and Fish does, and they need additional funds to do it. That is all the cost/benefit analysis needed for this sportsmen.

  16. Your opening paragraph was an accurate statement and highlights the concerns expressed by Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife (WY SFW), you know, the sportsmen’s group you keep ignoring.
    WY SFW has clearly stated that we have concern about spending within the department. WY SFW has called for a cost/benefit analysis of existing programs; furthermore, we have asked for the G&F to identify their priorities. WY SFW believes that it is imperative that we understand what our existing programs cost, that we look at ways to combine existing programs or eliminate programs which are not achieving their goals or objectives.
    When your income is reduced, it doesn’t make sense to cut programs without first evaluating them. WY SFW recognizes that G&F Department had to make the cuts initially where they were able to make them. The G&F Commission now has the time to work with sportsmen (the G&F department’s primary constituency), the G&F department and other wildlife advocacy groups to evaluate existing programs and make adjustments where applicable. During this process, the G&F Commission can also explore new ways to augment the G&F department via non-traditional mechanisms which are consistent with our current funding model; which is to say, that it should be tied to a user pay method rather than continually depending on general fund dollars.
    WY SFW would like to see any other users groups which are currently profiting from the wildlife resources of this state contributing to its management as well; however, WY SFW will always insist that hunting, fishing and trapping remain a priority within the G&F department.
    The article concludes with a quote from Steve Kilpatrick and his interpretation of why the state legislature has denied an increase in license fees the last two sessions. I would like to offer a differing view. In my opinion, the state legislators did listen to their constituents. They asked hard questions of the G&F department. They too, have been asking for cost/benefit analysis of existing G&F programs. There are many legislators which believe funding is not the issue, but rather spending. WY SFW has stated clearly, every time we have been able to articulate a specific need for funding, the legislature has answered by providing assistance for the department. We see that with general funds being used for capital construction costs, wolf management, AIS (Aquatic Invasive Species), brucellosis management and now the potential addition of covering health care costs and grizzly bear management. I believe, Mr. Kilpatrick is wrong to imply that the state legislature doesn’t like the current model; they simply would like to see spending issues addressed before increasing license fees.

  17. People who hunt and fish are a declining demographic, and have been for years. Yet the department has continuing and even increasing expectations from the public and the courts about what the department is supposed to be doing.
    The commission should grasp the nettle and start lobbying the legislature to start funding some of the budget from the general fund. It is sheer fantasy that the department can subsist forever on hunting and fishing license revenues.

  18. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission’s annual report and its line-by-line Budget are viewable online…IF you know where to find it. G & F has it utterly buried on the website. Whether that is intentional , or just incompetent website design, I cannot say( I suspect some of both ) . Once you have it at hand, you can track every dime that Wyo G&F takes in and spends, down to species level for wildlife/hunting management, fish , and fowl. It’s where you find out the gross amount of money we already spend on Grizzly and Wolf management without much outside revenue or hunter license tags, for instance.

    You also find out that without outside federal assistance and state monies, none of the big game hunting programs except Pronghorn pay for themselves with hiunting tags. A quarter of big game operation funds are federal grants and reimbursements from various conservation funds not all derived from sportsmen. The huge paradox comes in Elk hunting…record numbers of elk harvested in 2013, a record number of hunter-days in the field, but a pretty big G&F financial shortfall in managing the elk hunting program , requiring subsidy. There is your case for increasing license fees if there is one to be made. If Elk hunting cannot pay its own way , there is something wrong with the whole system.

    But don’t take my word for it…peruse the documents and drill down.

    Here is the link to the 2013 Annual Report , and you are forewarned it is a 274 page PDF document. The Budget docs can be found in appendix C , which includes management and operations funding for FY 2014.