Energy & Environment

Game Theory

Wildlife managers are finding that relying on hunting and fishing licenses for funding can turn into a straitjacket.
by | July 2002

Restoring wildlife is one part of protecting the environment that state governments have excelled at. State game and fish departments have brought back deer, elk, antelope, bighorn sheep and grouse, in addition to fish species that a century ago seemed destined to disappear from North America. What's more, they've covered most of the cost by selling licenses to hunt and fish and collecting federal taxes on firearms, ammunition and tackle.

Long ago, state wildlife managers demonstrated how agencies that accomplish clearly visible results can build a steadfast public constituency. Hunters and anglers may grumble when fees go up or seasons are curtailed, but year after year they've been there to pick up the tab in return for elk and deer to hunt and trout and bass for fishing.

To many public officials these days, that looks like an enviable bargain. Operating funds for state pollution regulators are being cut back, while trust funds for environmental clean-ups are being raided as governors and legislatures desperately seek money to balance state budgets. But as wildlife managers are now finding out, relying so totally on a committed clientele can also turn into a straitjacket.

The way things work now, license fees and taxes on arms and tackle bring in 90 percent of the nearly $1 billion that state wildlife agencies spend every year. But revenues are falling off as the population ages in rural communities where people have hunted and fished since childhood. Meanwhile, the American countryside is being transformed, and newcomers moving into exurban hinterlands insist that state biologists protect all kinds of wildlife, including wolves, bears, mountain lions, frogs and songbirds.

State game and fish agencies led the national conservation movement a century ago, but now they're scrambling to catch up to a modern-day environmental ethic. At the same time, they're coping with new threats to their original mission as habitats get paved and new diseases stalk big-game populations. Wisconsin and several Western states have begun slaughtering deer and elk to keep chronic wasting disease, a brain affliction similar to mad cow disease, from decimating entire herds and possibly infecting hunters who eat venison. The campaign is drawing protests from animal-rights activists who now routinely challenge state programs that promote hunting of any wildlife.

Their job is getting more complicated--and expensive--every year, but wildlife managers don't think they can ask sportsmen to kick in more money. So far, they haven't been able to figure out ways they can charge birdwatchers, photographers and hikers to help cover the cost of managing the full complement of wild birds and animals. A few years back, outdoor equipment manufacturers killed a proposal to tax backpacks, boots, binoculars and similar wares and funnel the proceeds into diversified state wildlife programs. Missouri's natural resources agency gets $11 million a year from state sales taxes for some ambitious conservation programs, but 14 states spend less than $500,000 apiece every year on non-game programs.

State lottery proceeds and money from income tax checkoffs and specialty license plate sales have helped, but they don't come close to filling the gap. Congress has begun distributing $85 million a year to expand state wildlife recovery programs, but state agencies figure they'll need at least $1 billion annually to stabilize 1,500 endangered or threatened species and keep others from approaching oblivion. Congress also has been debating a permanent funding source financed by $350 million a year from federal offshore oil and gas revenues. Many U.S. senators and representatives, however, are reluctant to give governors the chance to take credit for spending federal money.

That's just politics, perhaps, but the environmental organizations that Congress listens to also don't put much stock in the commitment of state game agencies to protect threatened wildlife. Yet, at least five states--Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington--have already made it state policy to preserve wild biological diversity, and voters have adopted $20 billion in bond issues the past few years to expand state parks and preserve habitat for all sorts of wildlife. Agency directors from 46 states now have formed a Natural Resources Leadership Council of the States to make the case that state governments must play a crucial role if the country wants to preserve its biological resources.

There's just as much at stake back home. With the promotion of economic activity a factor, governors and legislators want more say over the balance in protecting endangered species.

Meanwhile, it's hard to see Congress giving states much leeway unless game departments expand their "hook and bullet" repertoire and apply their demonstrated wildlife management skills to the full complement of species. To pull that off, they'll need new fiscal resources--along with consistent support from political leaders and from citizens who don't hunt and fish--for carrying out truly comprehensive wildlife conservation.

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