A bull moose in Grand Teton National Park. (J. Bonney/NPS/Flickr)

There’s a new initiative in Wyoming that’s changing the face of wildlife conservation funding, and it’s already seen huge success in its first year. 

It’s based on the state’s startling mountains, rivers filled with fish and forests where bears and wolves roam — everything that makes Wyoming unrivaled.

Opinion

That wildlife is managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and 85% of the cost is funded by hunters and anglers. This happens largely through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, as well as taxes on related sporting goods through the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts

But as we all know, hunters and anglers aren’t the only people fascinated by wildlife. The No. 1 reason people travel to Wyoming is to view wild animals, and wildlife watching alone accounts for almost half a billion dollars in state revenue. It also employs over 10,000 people

Yet the tourism industry that I’m part of as a wildlife guide contributes very little when it comes to funding wildlife conservation.

Taylor Phillips, owner of EcoTour Adventures in Jackson, felt this gap was unfair and wanted to do something about it. Since founding his business in 2008, Phillips has donated more than $115,000 to nonprofits that work to conserve the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

Phillips says he expected other wildlife tourism businesses to follow his lead, but very few did. Wanting to change the narrative, Phillips partnered with Chris McBarnes, president of The WYldlife Fund, a partner foundation to the Game and Fish Department that helps fund wildlife projects across Wyoming. Together, the two men created Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow, a nonprofit that funds conservation by targeting businesses and people that depend on wildlife to make their living. These are the companies that run wildlife tours, and the hotels, restaurants and shops that cater to wildlife watchers. 

By tapping into this tourism constituency, the new group has “enormous potential to change the face of funding wildlife conservation in Wyoming,” Phillips said. Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism, agreed, calling Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow “a crucial initiative” for wildlife conservation, especially as hunting revenues decline. 

Donations are collected from both individuals and businesses through Wildlife Tourism’s website, and donors have the option to select the conservation projects their money helps. 

One project currently in need of funding is the restoration of sagebrush steppe in Grand Teton National Park. In the early 1900s, several thousand acres of land in the park were cultivated for hay production, which fragmented habitat for wildlife. Since 2009, the park has been working to restore 4,500 acres of former hay fields to sagebrush and grasses, a multi-year project with an annual budget of over $400,000. Funding through Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow donations helps keep the project going.

The nonprofit also uses the money it raises to build wildlife crossings on highways and install wildlife-friendly fencing along migration corridors. Other contributions go toward restoring wetlands and radio-collaring elk for scientific study.

For too long, hunters and anglers have been doing the heavy lifting.

Usually, projects that help wildlife are designed by organizations such as Trout Unlimited, the U.S. Forest Service and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Project developers then partner with other interested groups to seek funding through the state’s underfunded Game and Fish Department. Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow steps in to help fill the gaps in funding. 

Since October of 2021, Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow has donated over $125,000 that was collected from 68 businesses and dozens of individuals. One of its projects with Trout Unlimited in 2020 contributed $20,000 to keep spawning cutthroat trout from getting trapped in an irrigation system. 

Trout Unlimited’s Leslie Steen appreciated the help: “I’ve seen wildlife tour trips in the area and it is really neat to think that those same businesses are now giving back to native fish.”

Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow has grown quickly in its first year, and support from Gov. Mark Gordon has given it more visibility. Meanwhile, Phillips has spent a lot of time spreading the word that people who love wildlife need to step up. For too long, hunters and anglers have been doing the heavy lifting.

Just a suggestion, other Western states, but maybe it’s time to get on board.

This piece was originally published by Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about Western issues, and reprinted here with permission.

Kelsey Wellington

Kelsey Wellington is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She works as a private guide in Grand...

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  1. In regards to Taylor Phillips, owner of EcoTour Adventures in Jackson, who donated more than $115,000 to nonprofits that work to conserve the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and who would like to complain about the free ride everyone is getting to see a tree, or mountain, or wildlife, I will say that the free ride is being given to people like Mr. Phillips.

    Who has $115,000 to give away?

    Who gets the State to underwrite their advertising budgets? Who subsidizes flights for tourists into Jackson Hole? Who demands government expansion of visas for underpaid labor to enrich themselves at the expense of other taxpayers? Who demands an expansion of resort districts with 5-story buildings to house visitors but refuses to allow similar density for housing workers?

    According to the fool.com website: 47% of Americans Can’t Handle a $500 Emergency Without Worry.

    According to the Census, about 50% of women ages 55 to 66 have no personal retirement savings, and about 47% of men.

    Everyone should have the freedom to see a tree, or mountain, or wildlife without the government demanding payment.

    The Hospitality Industrial Complex has its workers living in the national forests around Jackson. Along with local government, they are the problem. They can do the “heavy lifting” for wildlife and we can do with less of them so as to protect the natural resources they have invaded.

  2. Preservation: when wild animals are protected 52 weeks out of the year.
    Conservation: when the same wild animals are protected for 50 weeks of the year so they can be hunted, shot, and killed the other two weeks of the year .

    Keep in mind it’s called the Wyoming GAME & Fish department , not the Wyoming Wildlife & Fish Department. Economics vs. Ecologics. The department still does not understand the distinction between wildlife and game, let alone manage for it. The Stockgrowers and Safari Clubbers wouldn’t let them anyway…

    Every state’s wildlife agency funding is in need of a total reformation , not just Wyoming. The burden of paying for the management of the public resource that is wildlife should not fall so heavily on the shoulders of hunters and fisherman , but that was done by design for political purposes. It will be extraordinarily difficult to change. The 19th century mindset, Manifest Destiny , and the North American Big Game Model are all still dominant attitudes, individually and collectively. All are seriously flawed. ( Example: none are inclusive of predators ).

    Pop quiz: An angler can fish for several types of Trout in Wyoming waters. Rainbow, Cutthroat , Brown , Brook , Golden , Lake. Only one of those trout is actually native to Wyoming ; the rest were imported. Can you name which ?

  3. AH HA!!! I just thought of a simple way to fund wildlife viewing and recovery of some T&E species. We could simply legislate a small percentage of lodging tax income that would be dedicated to wildlife viewing. 1/4 to 1/2 % of the lodging tax imposed in each county could go to wildlife viewing. Lodging tax funds are usually spent on advertising to bring more people to Wyoming – but who attracts more visitors than our wildlife. Why not support wildlife viewing through an existing lodging tax?? Places like Las Vegas impose a large lodging tax to attract people but they don’t have the wildlife draw like we do.

  4. I really liked this article. It’s long past time for hunters and anglers to get a little help in preserving habitat. Glad some folks are stepping up and pitching in. However, it’s not nearly enough, and purely voluntary efforts aren’t enough when most people are glad to let someone else pay the bill. I’m not sure what mechanism is best for getting tourists to help support habitat, but I’m sure there’s a way, and it should be addressed by the legislature.

  5. Well for too long wildlife watchers have had too little say in how state and federal wildlife managers manage wildlife. Too much emphasis on game species and not enough for predators and other non game species. We look forward to this “pay for a seat at the table” arrangement.

  6. Good points–Yes, if watchers paid more to support wildlife that would give them the right to have a bigger say in policy which now is virtually totally dominated by hunters. However, note that many hunters don’t want this to happen–when Idaho & Montana proposed measures (e.g., wolf stamp to help encourage non-lethal methods of handling wolf conflicts), the hunting community effectively opposed such changes. So many if not most hunters prefer status quo where they dominate policy.

    1. Very interesting observation Bruce. The implication goes to the heart of the Endangered Species Act which mandates recovery but fails to adequately fund the recovery efforts. As a result, black footed ferret, wolf and grizzly recovery is largely funded by hunters and fishing folks in Wyoming with MEGA bucks; somehow, Game and Fish manages to find the money in their budget. It represents a great inequity no doubt since the vast majority of Americans strongly support recovery of these species. Whats really ironic is the support by the American people for wild horse care programs which is funded with well over $100 million per year primarily for pasturing the horses on private property for the remainder of their lives. So for one program the public pays the bills for wild horse care but for other programs the Wyoming hunters and fishing folks pay to recover T&E species under the ESA. What’s important to recognize is the extremely strong support the majority of Americans have for recovering these wildlife viewing species – so why aren’t they paying their fair share of the costs. It must go back to the way the original ESA was written and a lack of funding for the USFWS. Please note that wild horse funding is included in the Dept of Interior/BLM budget and not through wildlife budgeting. There’s got to be a better/more fair way of funding wolves, grizzlies and black footed ferrets.

  7. Excellent point. Looking around Laramie one sees another way to contribute. Wildlife Conservation license plates. Not only do they contribute to lessening wildlife deaths due to collisions, they look cool too.