What is Wyoming wildlife worth to all of us?
Due to a number of factors, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department finds itself in a financial pinch and is trying to come up with ways to augment income from license fees and other programs. The public is invited — urged, in fact — to chime in to find ways to fund state fish and wildlife management projects. BRADLY J. BONER / NEWS&GUIDE FILEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Paul Bruun, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
November 7, 2012
Squeezing blood from a turnip is a fitting description for the predicament facing the Wyoming Game and Fish Department as it scrambles to budget for the future.
Unlike other state agencies, Game and Fish receives minimal income from Wyoming’s general fund. Due to a long-standing federal requirement dating to 1937, when the Pittman-Robertson Act for wildlife resource funding was passed, funds from a nationwide 10 percent excise tax on firearms and ammunition (now expanded to archery equipment) were made available to states whose wildlife agencies were independent from legislative funding and self-supporting from license fees. This prevents the rather common practice of state legislatures gobbling dedicated sportsmen-produced monies for their general funds.
A companion bill, Dingell-Johnson, passed in 1950, similarly delivers a 10 percent federal excise tax on fishing tackle to states. Distribution formulas consider number of hunting and fishing licenses sold, miles of streams and waterways and size of hunting areas, all of which favors Wyoming’s vast resources.
Inflation, expanding energy-related responsibilities, more non-game projects and continued management specialization coupled with a slump in the once-healthy sales of hunting and fishing licenses throws Wyoming Game and Fish in familiar financial straits. Similar cash ceilings are discouraging to state game and fish organizations nationwide. Perhaps Alaska is the exception; its legislature generously funds expansive wildlife management activities.
I was a Wyoming Game and Fish Department fan long before accepting a Wyoming newspaper job in 1973. Reading Wyoming Wildlife, admiring LuRay Parker’s amazing photographs and visiting Wyoming at every chance were my passions. After becoming a resident, my admiration for the red-shirt-wearing crowd increased, even when they scolded me for bumbling license drawings and stumbling into incorrect antelope units. It was disappointing to discover resentment between some legislators and Game and Fish over disagreements that had long ago faded into unimportance.
As it is with any profession, it is fascinating to learn how many “wildlife experts” fancy themselves smarter than those employed by Game and Fish. Rarely is there a subject — whether it be stocking fish, setting slot limits, feeding elk, radio-collaring wild game, arranging hunt areas, setting trophy quotas, dictating bear abatement procedures, counting game herds or simply trying to stop the unwanted invasion of exotic aquatic species — where resident experts don’t outnumber professional game and fish managers. Having long been one of the above “experts,” I speak from experience.
So about every five to seven years Game and Fish emerges, cap in hand, and tries to present its facts so the sometimes contentious Wyoming Legislature will agree to license fee increases, allowing the department to keep its lights on and to pay its highly dedicated staff to deliver quality work.
Whenever these situations arise, I recall a remark from Francis “Pete” Petera, a former Game and Fish director and the first game warden I met upon moving to Jackson: “When I started with the department, I think we only had two 4-wheel-drive vehicles in the entire state.”
Every time I see local warden Bill Long wheel by in his Baja-equipped 4X4 pickup, I recall Pete’s remark and silently compute how many fishing and hunting licenses it takes to buy one warden’s rig and what it costs to put gas in it for a year. Is it any wonder the department needs a license hike?
Dirk Miller, the newly appointed deputy fisheries supervisor, contacted me for input into the latest Game and Fish funding quest. In general, Jackson-area sportsmen are pretty good at dealing with license hikes, but the rest of the state has been known to buy fewer licenses following fee hikes. When hunting and fishing license sales were strong — not only in Wyoming but throughout the country — it isn’t long before formerly disgruntled users returned to the fold. These days their return isn’t guaranteed, especially in light of lower outdoor use numbers. In fact, consultants have urged Game and Fish to consider lowering some licenses to stimulate sales.
Numerous schemes in addition to wildlife vehicle plates and license fee adjustments have been suggested. These range from creating separate white-tail and mule deer licenses to annual or biennial license fee adjustments indexed to inflation. Big chunks of revenue have been raised in other states by creating a big game license fee super raffle. Wyoming’s big and trophy game inventory would create a sizable dollar bonus with a plan such as this.
Area 1 fisheries biologist Diana Miller explained the license fee increase is a short-term “fix,” and services will begin shrinking if expanded funding can’t be designed.
Can Wyoming Game and Fish be more receptive to being a profit center? Would the publishing freedom enjoyed by brilliant editorial boss Chris Madsen be diminished if the proper advertisers added revenue in Wyoming Wildlife? How long did it take for the fishing regulations to finally accept some advertising?
Wyoming residents welcome wildlife in their surroundings, but because they don’t buy the variety of hunting licenses they once did, finding a way for them to become more financially involved is paramount.
Colorado and Missouri have benefitted from the installing a checkoff system on state income tax returns. I was in Missouri during the 1960s when this began, and the state wildlife coffers really grew. Of course, without a state income tax Wyoming Game and Fish should strive to get a small percentage of state sales tax, which would also have to remain free from outside raiding.
My personal suggestion is that Wyoming provide a distribution outlet for Jackson Hole’s unique Bar BC strain of fine-spotted Snake River cutthroat, which, if available in substantial numbers, would be a boon to other trout-hungry states. The survival and superior growth track record of this cutthroat subspecies when introduced into new environments (North Dakota’s Missouri River; Bighorn River at Thermopolis; Shoshone in Cody; White, Little Red and North Fork in Arkansas; Green above and below Flaming Gorge) leaves standard hatchery pellet heads for dead.
Rounding up sponsors for specific Game and Fish projects — whether it be radio collars for elk, deer and bears or stomach transmitters for wandering trout and other species — is doable via supporters such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Trout Unlimited. A Henrys Fork rainbow trout named Jackson is probably still packing a radio I purchased a few years ago.
It’s not too late to pass along your creative financial ideas to the department. Examine and comment on its financial status webpage (WGFD.wyo.gov/web2011/wgfd-1000880.aspx). Hunters and anglers are contributing already. Game and Fish needs a reliable financing source to build a broader base to support sound wildlife management.
BLM parcel open house
The Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation Department and the Snake River Fund host an open house from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the 4-H Building, 255. W. Deloney Ave., to aid in planning future Wilson Bridge/South Park access and BLM parcels on the Snake. All involved agency representatives will be present to take input. Results of user survey will be released.
Paul Bruun writes weekly on his adventures and misadventures in the great outdoors.