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Alternate Funding for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department

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 By

 David Gowdey

Executive Director

Wyoming Wildlife Federation.

 My friends, we have a problem. It’s a serious problem, and it’s one that can’t be solved unless we all get involved. For years now, we have known that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department faces a serious funding crisis. It’s a crisis that is only likely to get worse in the coming years unless an additional alternative source of funding is found.

 The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is tasked with protecting all wildlife in the state of Wyoming.  In the past programs mostly dealt with game species, which were adequately funded with revenues from hunting and fishing licenses.  However, in recent years, concern about endangered and threatened species has required the Department to spend more money each year for sensitive species such as the black footed ferret and the grizzly bear.  These programs are required by law, or to head off restrictions on use and development that would hurt Wyoming’s economy. The Department has identified over 250 species as “species of greatest conservation need”, those species which could be at risk.  Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Terry Cleveland estimated that this funding gap, the amount of funding that is or should be devoted to funding non-game wildlife programs, amounts to roughly $8 to $10 million per year

 Currently these sensitive species  programs are paid for by sportsmen and women from the same license revenues that fund game species programs.  In a nutshell, the Department is being asked to do much more without being given the additional resources to do the job.  The demands on the Department to do research on sensitive species; to manage and improve habitat; to prevent the transmission of diseases within wildlife populations and between wildlife and livestock; and to enforce legal regulations continues to grow at an alarming rate.  The net result is that the Department has had to redirect resources away from important game management, research, and hunter education, programs that are of primary importance to sportsmen in order to meet the new demands.

 The Department has tried repeatedly to address this serious problem. Their efforts to get funding from the legislature for these programs have been rejected. Key members of the legislature are willing to provide additional funding to Game and Fish ONLY if they get political control over Game and Fish operations.  Sportsmen’s groups are adamantly opposed to this kind of wildlife management by politics instead of wildlife management by science.  We’ve seen it before and we know that it only leads to disaster. 

 In order to solve this important problem, a coalition of Sportsmen’s conservation groups, including the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Foundation for North American Wild Sheep –Wyoming Chapter, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Wyoming Conservation Voters, and the Wyoming Audubon Society has been formed and has been meeting since June of 2005.  The task force believes that solution to this problem is to find a dedicated source of annual funding that would go directly to the Game and Fish Commission, just the way license fees currently do, that would not be subject to political tinkering by the legislature.  They are committed to getting the Wyoming Game and Fish Department such a source of funding. 

 Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. It’s just not fair to address it by increasing hunting and fishing license fees.  Currently 60% of Department funding comes from the sale of non-resident licenses.  Increasing this percentage by raising just non-resident fees may cause legal problems –and may cause many non-residents to be priced out of hunting and fishing in Wyoming.  Resident hunters already feel they are paying their fair share and would not like to see their fees increased.  So obtaining significantly more revenues from licenses is likely to prove impossible.  On the other hand, in Wyoming there are many people who enjoy wildlife but do not hunt or fish, and so are not paying any of the costs for wildlife management.  Many of these folks are involved in businesses that directly or indirectly benefit from Wyoming’s abundant wildlife resources.  To solve the Game and Fish funding gap, it will be necessary for the burden of funding wildlife management to be shared more evenly by all sectors of the state, not just the hunters and anglers.  Sportsmen and women will continue to pay more than their fair share, but others need to help pay some of the additional costs of managing wildlife they enjoy as well. 

 To date the task force has examined what other states have done to raise additional funding.  Arkansas and Missouri both enacted a 1/8 cent sales tax.  Arizona and Colorado used portions of their lotteries.  After considerable discussion, the group decided that a sales tax would not be likely to pass in the legislature.  The group has therefore decided to focus its efforts on two of the most likely sources of revenue: diverting a portion of the coal severance tax into a bloc grant similar to that given to the University of Wyoming; or securing revenues from a lottery if the legislature looks likely to pass one.  A sales tax increase remains a third possibility.

 The group has decided to launch its initiative this spring to secure Game and Fish alternative funding – with the idea of attempting to secure passage of a suitable bill in the 2007 Legislature.  Each of the groups will be working individually and collectively to build public support for the initiative and to persuade legislators to support it.   

 It will be a challenge to get a Wyoming Game and Fish Department alternative funding bill enacted.  There is strong hostility to the Game and Fish Department among some legislators.  We will have to mount an effective political campaign, and may even have to resort to an initiative should the legislature prove unresponsive.   Sportsmen are once again going to have to fight to ensure that future generations have the same quality of scientific wildlife management that we have enjoyed in the past, and that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department continues to remain independent from the political wheeling and dealing in Cheyenne.  It is likely to be a long, hard fight, and once again sportsmen and conservationists will be leading the charge. 

 

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