As Wyoming grapples with how it will fund wildlife conservation, hunters may lose some of their influence as other groups and interests are asked to increase their financial contributions.
Hunters have been key players in conserving wildlife in the post-frontier era, a development that’s come to be called the North American Model of Wildlife Management. Wyoming Game and Fish Department says 55 percent of its budget comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and fees, and that hunters contribute even more through taxes on guns and ammo.
Since 2005, however, the agency has received general fund money appropriated by the Legislature, now amounting to 6 percent of its budget. That opens the door for others to demand representation in wildlife management decisions.
But those interests, whether they be against hunting or against aggressive predator control, feel they already have a legitimate reason to be heard but still are being shut out.
“I would describe the North American Model as incomplete,” said Thomas Serfass, a professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland and chairman of its department of biology and natural resources who has studied the issue. “It’s never been a complete story of wildlife conservation.”
Hunters have rightly claimed credit for saving or restoring iconic American species, be they elk, antelope, ducks or wild turkey. Yet some point to imperiled sage grouse, declining mule deer populations and the recent Endangered Species Act protection of the Gunnison sage grouse as examples of a broken North American Model.
One of the elements that is missing from the North American Model’s history of wildlife conservation is the contributions of federal land management agencies, Serfass said.
“Federal funding has never been a prominent part of what’s been, or at least what’s been portrayed (as) the North American Model,” he said. “Setting land aside in the public domain in perpetuity is probably the most substantive thing we do for wildlife conservation.”
When the value of federal land programs are put into the mix of wildlife conservation today, hunters’ contributions diminish to a mere 6 percent of funding nationwide, a paper released in October says. “The basis (the North American Model) of public debate is a myth,” says the study Wildlife Conservation and Management Funding in the U.S. The group Nevadans for Responsible Wildlife, Management issued the paper.
“Times are changing,” said Donald Molde, co-author of the study and a former board member of Defenders of Wildlife. “The issue of wildlife — who pays for that (and) whether the non-consumptive user should have a say — this is a body of concern that’s really relatively new … in the last 10 years.”
“What about this public lands argument,” he said. “Holy Toledo, that’s a huge subsidy to hunters.”
Molde’s paper, written with Mark E. Smith, co-founder of the Nevada group, says the eight largest federally funded wildlife programs contribute $18.7 billion annually to wildlife, land management and related programs. Those agencies include the U.S. Forest Service at $9.7 billion, the National Park Service at $3.6 billion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at $2.8 billion and the BLM at $1.2 billion.
Only 5 percent of those agencies’ operating budgets and land acquisition costs are funded by hunters or related activities, the authors say. A similar ratio occurs in the private sector among conservation nonprofits, the study says.
“The 10 largest non-profit conservation organizations contribute $2.5 billion annually to habitat and wildlife conservation; of this, 12.3 percent comes from hunters and 87.7 percent from the non-hunting public,” the paper says. The Nature Conservancy tops the list at $859 million annually, followed by land trusts, Wildlife Conservation Society, World Wildlife Fund and Ducks Unlimited, the latter at $147 million.
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was last of the top 10 at $54 million, according to Molde and Smith.
“With increased awareness and interest of the general (non consumptive) public in controversial wildlife management issues such as fur trapping, predator control, trophy hunting, coyote killing contests and wolf reintroduction, a debate is before us as to whether the general public is or should be afforded a proper voice in wildlife management decisions,” the two wrote. “Sportsmen favor the current system, which places a heavy emphasis on their interests through favorable composition of wildlife commissions and a continued emphasis on ungulate management.”
“Nonhuman predators (wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, ravens and others) are disfavored by wildlife managers at all levels as competition for sportsmen and are treated as second-class citizens of the animal kingdom,” the paper says. “Sportsmen suggest this bias is justified because ‘Sportsmen pay for wildlife,’ a refrain heard repeatedly when these matters are discussed.”
Molde has been arguing with Nevada wildlife authorities about lion hunting and trapping for 40 years, he said, but officials hear other voices. “The guys who stand up and shout the loudest are the ones that shoot deer, elk and bighorn sheep,” he said.
Their argument goes like this, Serfass said: “We provided the funding and technical resources, for example, restoring ungulates. In the process hunters vilify predators.” Thus, “they (hunters) should have primary attention in the way predators are managed.
“That attitude has taken us back 70 or 80 years in the progress we have been making in predator and prey management,” he said.
Even choosing to buy a license shouldn’t entitle one to a louder voice, Molde argues. Such influence may even undercut elements of the North American Model.
The North American Model of Wildlife Management:
• Wildlife is a public-trust resource
• Elimination of markets for wildlife
• Allocation of wildlife by law
• Wildlife can only be killed for a legitimate purpose
• Wildlife are considered an international resource
• Science is the proper tool for the discharge of wildlife policy
• Democracy of hunting (not restricted to those of means)
From “Large Carnivore Conservation” edited by Susan Clark (Yale) and Murray Rutherford (Simon Fraser University). The two argue in the book that the North American Model is inconsistent in its principles.
In recent years Wyoming has seen the establishment of the Cougar Fund, Wyoming Untrapped, and Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, each of which seeks to defend predators. Wildlife Advocates recently sued federal agencies over the elk hunt in Grand Teton National Park and is criticizing the Game and Fish’s killing of a grizzly bear near Clark.
The challenged elk hunt in Grand Teton may be an example of how some people feel left out, according to a masters’ thesis being prepared by Marian Vernon, a teaching fellow at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She interviewed more than 30 people about the park’s elk reduction program.
“(W)hile stakeholders tend to define the problems associated with the park elk hunt in technical terms (e.g., problems of elk overpopulation, human safety), the underlying problem — and the ultimate source of the conflict — is that many stakeholders feel disrespected and excluded from the process by which government agencies make decisions about wildlife management and conservation on public lands,” she wrote in the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative fall 2014 newsletter. “The results of my study suggest that agencies should shift the focus of their attention away from ecological and biological details of elk management and instead focus on improving transparency, participation and involvement with outside stakeholders.”
Serfass, at Frostburg State, agrees.
“Probably a lack of access (to decision-makers) is one of the weakness in how we conduct wildlife conservation,” he said. “As a democratic society, if we’re talking about the public trust, people need more access.”
Despite the argument about the role of public lands in wildlife conservation, state management budgets are still viewed through the lens of the rifle scope, the critics said.
“Access is related to contributions,” Serfass said. “The first thing we have to do is realize we need a broader funding base.
“Non-hunting conservationists need to step up and demand to participate in funding,” he said. “The infrastructure is not in place. The average person who cares about conservation doesn’t necessarily (participate in) those types of activities,” like hunting.
“They certainly don’t have a voice with congressional caucuses that deal with sportsmen activities,” he said. “If they don’t belong to one of the higher-end conservation organizations, it’s a challenge for them to participate.”
Attempts to find new ways to fund wildlife conservation are ongoing not only in Wyoming but also nearby, not always successfully. In North Dakota, voters this month rejected a proposal to set aside 5 percent of the state’s oil extraction tax for conservation, the Bismarck Tribune reported.
In Montana, Fish Wildlife and Parks stalled a proposal to sell a wolf-management stamp that would have funded non-lethal elements of the agency’s program. Critics on both sides of the predator argument didn’t have faith in the proposal. The nonprofit Wildlife Institute offered reasons in an online essay.
“The lack of relationships with citizens who do not hunt or fish can lead to indifference or mistrust that undermines public support for new revenue sources,” the policy group said. “At the same time, the longstanding relationship between agencies and hunters that has fueled conservation for the past century can also create resistance to allowing other interests to help fund state agencies.”
Regardless of the role of federal lands and budgets in sustaining wildlife in Wyoming, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission decides on game populations, hunting seasons and so on. The governor appoints the seven members of the commission, who represent districts across the state. Laws limit the number of members from a single political party.
Wyoming wants to set up a task force to figure out how to ensure long-term Game and Fish funding, said Neil Thagard, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Western outreach director. The group supports wildlife conservation through the North American Model. Sportsmen, business owners, oil and gas interests would come up with a plan at the governor’s request, Thagard said, and he’s been asked to serve.
While it’s too early to predict what might come out of such a group — yet to be assembled and announced — Thagard would like to see non-consumptive users engaged, he said.
“There’s no one in this state that doesn’t benefit from sustainable fish and wildlife populations,” he said. “I would just like to see everyone step up to the plate and be willing to provide funding for professional wildlife management.”
“As far as the funding to the professional wildlife agencies, it is sportsmen that are paying the bill, and that’s a good thing,” he said. Some hunters want to keep it that way, he said. If the system changes, the fear among some is “We as sportsmen are going to lose control.”
Thagard agrees that federal lands in the West are essential to healthy wildlife populations, hence his stiff opposition to states acquiring them. At the state management level, where most game populations, hunting seasons and limits are set “I think the hunter does have a louder voice — but they’re the ones engaged with the agency,” he said.
He also would defer to technical and biological experts, unlike Yale’s Vernon who is studying the Grand Teton elk hunt and suggesting decisions be made in a broader context that includes interests and stakeholders that have not traditionally been involved.
“What does the science say we need to do to appropriately manage fish and wildlife resources,” Thagard said. “It should be science-based information that influences the decisions.
“Our Wyoming Game and Fish are heavily influenced at times by policies established at the state level and by special interests,” he said. “That doesn’t always bode well for wildlife.”
Thagard said he’d like to see game and fish license prices linked to the consumer price index. If such were to happen, hunters and anglers would see less sticker shock than if prices were hiked once every decade or so, as they are now. Such a move also would keep the Legislature, which today approves license-price increases, out of the picture.
“We have too much legislative meddling in Game and Fish agencies,” he said. “This isn’t just Wyoming, it’s all over. We don’t need politics driving fish and wildlife management.”
If non-consumptive users feel left out of the wildlife management picture, so too do non-resident hunters. They’re one of the largest, if not the largest single group of contributors to the Game and Fish budget, Dubois outfitter and former legislator Budd Betts said.
He is a board member of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, a group that relies heavily on out-of-state clients.
Non-resident hunters can pay more than $1,000 for an elk license, $10,000 all-told for travel and an outfitted hunt. Even if non-consumptive users contribute to the Game and Fish budget, “the lion’s share is still going to come from the non-resident,” Betts said.
Like non-consumptive users, non-resident hunters also don’t have a direct line to the commission, Betts said.
“The Wyoming outfitters are really the only voice for the non-resident hunter – the only organized and sophisticated voice,” he said. “You have to have a commercial group speak for the major license (revenue) source. You have to have a trade organization to speak for that group.”
There’s no proven way to capture revenue from non-consumptive wildlife users, no method like taxing camera or binocular sales, Betts said. Should such a system be developed, or should general fund money increase as a proportion of the Game and Fish budget, that could worry hunters.
“The issue has always been (that) when you lose your hunter base for funding, it no longer becomes a hunter-based philosophy,” guiding wildlife management, he said. There could be “some sort of a non-hunter incursion into Game and Fish management.”
Wyoming voter approval of a constitutional amendment in 2012 guaranteeing the right of residents to hunt, trap and fish reflects how they feel about preserving their hunting heritage. Meantime, non-residents may be at the limit of what they would pay for a Wyoming elk license, Betts said.
“We’re going to be significantly overpriced versus other states,” he said. “The only way to maintain your competitiveness is to maintain your quality.”
That opens another Pandora’s box, he said. “That circles back around (to) all the issues people have with Game and Fish — herd numbers, late cow seasons, and how they go after predators,” Betts said.
If Wyoming finds a long-term funding solution, it may not satisfy everybody. Thagard and Molde’s divergent views of state wildlife agencies suggests as much.
“What would happen if Wyoming Game and Fish went broke and went out of business,” Molde said. “You’d still have wildlife all over Wyoming. They’d probably be doing just fine.” State game agencies exist, “simply to provide for hunter opportunity,” he said.
Thagard couldn’t see that more clearly – in the opposite direction. From elk feedgrounds to sage grouse conservation to habitat projects, wildlife today needs help.
“They don’t exist by themselves,” he said of wildlife. “We’re intervening to try and sustain it.”
Click here to view a Game and Fish video about its funding history and challenges here:
In this article, backcountry hunters and anglers weigh in on why it is a bad idea to transfer federal lands to the states.
SUPPORT: If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.