(Mark Gocke – click to enlarge)
Elk are gathered on a feeding ground in Wyoming. (Mark Gocke – click to enlarge)

Game and Fish license fee increase defeated

by Dustin Bleizeffer
— February 11, 2014

After a year of organizing and lobbying, a new coalition of sportsmen groups saw one of its key pieces of legislation defeated on the first day of the Wyoming Legislature’s 2014 budget session, which commenced on Monday.

House Bill 31 would have increased Wyoming Game and Fish license fees (exempting youth licenses) by 10 percent — potentially the first license fee increase in four years. It failed to get the votes needed for introduction, with a vote of 26 ayes and 32 nays.

“I’m disappointed,” said Catherine Thagard, coordinator for the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance. “But, from my perspective, this is just the beginning of the discussion. … We need sustainable support of Wyoming’s wildlife resource.”

Another bill, Senate File 45, “Game and fish department-general fund budget requests,” passed introduction in the Senate on Monday. The bill would shift some or all of the cost of the department’s grizzly bear management program and the cost of health insurance increases for department employees to the state’s General Fund. By doing so, it could help free up  $5 million to $7 million in the portion of the Game and Fish budget that is supported by license fees.

A draft of SF 45 in the interim also included shifting the cost of elk feeding grounds to the General Fund, but that portion was stripped before introduction to the Senate — a move that was pushed by the Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife organization. That group has also vehemently opposed proposals for license fee increases during the past two years, insisting that a fee increase cannot be justified until the Game and Fish department clearly states its priorities, its goals, and conducts a thorough cost-benefit analysis of all its programs.

“It’s not that we think they’re not accountable. It’s that they’re very entrenched about the way they do things,” Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife executive director Bob Wharff told WyoFile. “Before you go to the trough for more money, you need to make sure you’re being as efficient as you can.”

Wyoming lawmakers imposed $6.6 million in combined cuts to the Game and Fish Department’s 2013 and 2014 budgets — without the offset of a license fee increase — resulting in the closure of public lands access and youth recruitment programs, and resulting in a smaller staff. 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, according to Thagard.

Thagard said the budget cuts and fierce opposition to license fee increases — a valuable revenue driver for the department — were the driving force behind the formation of the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance in 2013; to invest in a department responsible for maintaining wildlife resources that are under increasing pressure. “We’re all sitting down at the table together to work on this jointly, because this matters to all of us. … Sportsmen have united in Wyoming to speak to this issue.”

A prominent oil and gas producer in Wyoming, Encana, even joined the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance’s chorus for “sufficient” monetary support (possibly including increased fees) of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, saying that prudent and measurable wildlife habitat monitoring and conservation is key to the approval of continued oil and gas development in the state.

Thagard and her organization point to a new poll that suggests most Wyomingites are in favor of increasing hunting and fishing license fees to help the state’s Game and Fish department deal with increasing budget and wildlife management pressures. According to polling results by DFM Research of St. Paul, Minn., some 63 percent of Wyoming residents supported the proposed — and now defeated — legislation to increase license fees for hunters and anglers. The poll also concluded that 61 percent support the goal of SF 45 to allocate General Funds to pay for grizzly management and health insurance for Game and Fish employees rather than using sportsmen’s dollars.

“What we heard from lawmakers, especially last year when the fee increase bill was voted down, was that sportsmen don’t want to pay more. But what the poll shows is that sportsmen understand the importance of funding for wildlife,” said Thagard.

The poll, conducted by DFM Research, was commissioned by the George B. Storer Foundation, a supporter of conservation and sportsmen’s organizations in Wyoming, including the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance. For full disclosure, the George B. Storer Foundation is among several foundational supporters of WyoFile, a nonprofit news organization. The poll surveyed 550 Wyoming residents statewide between Nov. 15 and Dec. 7, 2013. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.

Thagard said she’s confident, despite Monday’s setback, that Wyoming citizens will eventually succeed in increasing support of the department’s budget needs and revenue-raising ability, noting that tourism, agriculture and many other entities understand that Wyoming’s wildlife resources require an investment that returns a much bigger economic payoff. “We need to look at longterm solutions. We don’t need to be going through this every year.”

Wharff said his organization’s opposition to increased license fees isn’t well understood by the general public. “They (license fee increase supporters) either don’t understand it or they’re afraid to do the cost-benefit analysis.”

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 $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, some say, makes it difficult to keep up with rising costs.

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief.  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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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Mr. Wharff needs to go back to Utah. Enough of these screw balls trying to take hunting away from the average joe and give to the rich. Lets stop catering to lousy outfitters, whiney landowners, and rich trophy hunters and put wildlife back into the hands of citizens and sound managers. We cannot afford to lose this fight for our wildlife. Our G&F needs to be funded.

  2. I do not understand how these politicians think the WY G&F can provide superior service and science based managment for free. The Department has been more fiscally responsible than almost any other agency in the state, and as mentioned by Deweyv lists their annual line by line budget for the public to see. The truth is that those on the war path like Allen Yaggi want hunting in Wyoming to be a rich man’s sport where you pay to play and the score of the horns or antlers is all that matters. Nevermind putting food on your table or spending time enjoying the outdoors with your loved ones. It is not coincidence that Bob Wharff is leading the charge. He has long been a proponent for privatized hunting, where the wildlife does not belong to the public, but to the elite. In SW Wyoming I have watched Bob, SFW, and local outfitters slowly chip away at public access to the point where many of us are being force to give up hunting or drive an ungodly distance to hunt. A 10% fee increase would make each license 3 to 5 dollars more expensive. That is a small price to pay compared to what we are currently facing. I am glad to see the Sportsmans Alliance is taking a stand against these corrupt indivudals. They may have lost this battle, but I think in the long term they will win the war for public wildlife and public hunting.

  3. Honestly, I have little to base my opinion on what follows except my experiences with the agency over the years, but it seems like WG&F has lost their way somewhere along the line. What was once one of the better run agencies in the State, seems to be lacking in the leadership and direction that once made it an agency you knew was cognizant of their fiscal resources and used them wisely. Like most government agencies, they have become bloated and administratively top heavy. Politics and kingdoms have become more important than the underlying mission.

    I think the legislature’s unwillingness to just raise license rates is the pushback that the agency really needs to look inside and rebuild the leadership to put the agency back on track.

    Again, just a personal opinion based on 30 years of experience with the agency as a consumer/hunter.

  4. Winchester 49—the entirety of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department budget is posted online for each fiscal year. It’s line-itemed down to the nickel , without ambiguity. Shows all the sources of revenues and everywhere the money goes, even broken down by each specie the G & F manages whether hunted game, sport fish , or non-game animals.

    Having said that, the pertinent docs are totally BURIED in the catacombs of the G&F website . I wonder if that is intentional…

    Here is the link to the current fiscal year Annual Report from the Commission proper. Has everything, including budget. ( 275 pages , PDF ) :


  5. If anyone thinks a 10% increase going towards professional wildlife management is akin to a hunt for the rich, just wait and see what happens without it. If G&F has to curtail its PLPW programs, there is a good chance public access will be paid for by those who want to hunt. Keep in mind that much of our public land can only be accessed through private land. These landowners ARE going to be compensated or they will shut off access.

    They could charge a trespass fee, but that would be more work for them, which most are not interested in. The other option is the creation of so called hunting clubs, where a private entity pays the landowners and then manages the hunt on private lands. There have already been such proposals in Wyoming, based on how it’s done in Utah, where most of these areas are open to anyone, as long as they can afford the membership fee.

    A 10% fee increase will be like a pea in a bushel basket compared to what you are going to have to pay for access in the future.

    By the way, if I were a landowner or someone interested on forming a private hunting club, I certainly would be lobbying against any fee increase.

  6. The legislature has its head in the sand when it comes to fee increases. How can you tell an agency to budget based on fees, then increase the workload but not let the fees increase?

  7. So why don’t they just do the requested analysis? Each year I have to justify and submit a budget request that contains my spending plan. Why doesn’t it make sense for WGF to do the same? I am a hunter and fisherman, and I don’t like to see the fee increasing each year, almost making it a rich man’s sport, but I would gladly pay the increase if I knew how and why the money is being spent. I am also an educator, and constantly feel the pressure of accountability because the legislators don’t feel they are getting enough “bang for their bucks”. Maybe they feel the same way about the WGF?