By Geoffrey O’Gara, WyoFile.com
Wander for a few days along the western slope of the Wind River Mountains with biologist Hall Sawyer looking for mule deer, and you might decide not to bother buying a hunting license. Energy development, and winter range hammered by drought, have taken their toll on the Sublette County herd.
Nurturing that fragile mule deer population is one reason the Wyoming Game & Fish Department is selling fewer hunting licenses these days. Another, perhaps larger, reason is declining interest in hunting generally among Americans. “The hunters we have are aging,” says Steve Ferrell, an advisor to Gov. Matt Mead who previously headed Game & Fish. “And we’re just not recruiting new hunters. It’s a serious issue.”
In Wyoming, declining license sales – which pay for most of what the Game & Fish Department does – is one reason the agency foresees a budget shortfall in fiscal year 2014 of up to $10 million. The solution Game & Fish proposes, at least short term, is to raise fees for hunting and fishing.
Which seems wrong-headed to some of the legislators who are being asked to approve the budget strategy. “A license fee increase means there will be even less demand for the product, especially elk, deer and moose,” wrote Rep. Allen Jaggi (R-Lyman), in a letter he presented at a legislative hearing last month. Calling higher fees “a form of taxation,” Jaggi suggested the department tighten its belt, cutting back on vehicles, private land access payments, and management of non-game species.
John Emmerich, deputy director for external operations of Game & Fish, says that demand for hunting licenses in Wyoming actually remains high, but ensuring the quality of the game, including struggling species like mule deer, requires that the department issue fewer licenses, a trend that he expects to continue over the next five years. And if the legislature agrees to the fee hike, Game & Fish will still be looking for additional revenue sources. “There are going to be future challenges we don’t even know about,” says Emmerich. “Finding a supplemental source of income is going to be our major challenge.”
That’s because the dollars collected from hunters and fishermen – and, really, it’s the deer, elk and antelope that provide the, uh, lion’s share – have to go a lot further than just maintaining big game and fisheries. The agency has to deal with wildlife diseases, public and private access issues, public education, and managing non-game species for people who don’t want to shoot or hook wildlife, just look at it.
And underneath this dilemma lies another issue for the Wyoming Legislature; should Wyoming Game & Fish be allowed to operate so independently, with its own revenue stream, relatively free of the legislative control exerted on other agencies?
Here are some of the rate fee changes Game & Fish will propose for 2014 in a bill before the legislature this January:
For a complete list of proposed license hikes, click here or scroll to the bottom of this article.
Those may seem like hefty price hikes, but a month ago, Game & Fish was pushing for more substantial increases. That non-resident elk license, for instance, would go up to $750, instead of the currently proposed $650. Facing some resistance from both the public and legislators, the numbers have come down. Officials say they’ll still be able to raise enough revenue as long as there is indexing, which means allowing the Game & Fish Commission to further raise rates to keep up with inflation without going to the legislature. Indexing, though, is a tough sell (more on that, below).
Game & Fish officials concocted the new license fee levels from a variety of ingredients. They reviewed license fees charged in surrounding states. For example, Utah currently charges $76 for a resident deer license, while Montana charges $33. They also considered research on optimum pricing by Southwick Associates, a Florida company that compiles economic statistics on wildlife. They also factored inflation.
The fee hikes would not, in all cases, rise to a level that optimizes revenue. In the case of the proposed deer license fee, $62 would have (by Southwick’s calculations) brought in more dollars, Game & Fish Director Scott Talbot explained to legislators. But it would also have diminished sales, so the proposed fee is now at $48.
Youth licenses don’t increase under the plan because of the emphasis on “recruitment” – giving young people an inexpensive opportunity to learn and join in hunting, hoping to bolster the aging demographic of hunters and fishermen. For the indefinite future, a young person in Wyoming can hunt antelope for $15, catch a cutthroat for $3, and pursue elk for $25.
The biggest cost increases will land on out-of-state hunters, who were already paying about ten times what a Wyoming resident does. That led to a predictable outcry from non-residents when Game & Fish released its proposal. Since the plan began circulating in August, the department has received 158 non-resident comments — all negative. But hunting outfitters have endorsed the Game & Fish proposal, through the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, and they don’t expect to lose business.
“Our (out of state) clients are used to paying over $1,000 for a license,” said Todd Stevie, of Thompson Outfitters in Pinedale. “I support what they’re doing. Their cost of business goes up like everybody else’s does.”
Some legislators, though, have a problem with the other end of the spectrum. “It’s the idea of protecting Wyoming,” said Rep. Dave Bonner (R-Powell). “I don’t want to see it fall too heavily in that area of resident fishing.” Bonner was looking in November at a resident fishing license rising from $22 to $36, hardly a large amount, but still a 64 percent increase. Game & Fish has since lowered its proposed resident fishing license to $30.
At the same time, a non-resident fishing license would stay at $90. According to Emmerich, that’s because it’s already more than any of Wyoming’s neighbor states charge, “So if you raise that fee, you’ll lose money.”
“Is this the right time to do this?” asked Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) of the higher resident license fees, after listening to Talbott’s presentation at a November meeting of the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee (TRWC) in Lander. “It’s a difficult sell for us to do back home. If you held off for a biennium …”
Faced with that skepticism, Chairman Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) wasn’t sure the committee would vote the bill out. But they did, 8-6, with Dockstader voting against, and Bonner and Burns for. It remains to be seen how the license fee bill will fare when it gets to the 2013 Legislature, with many new members and newly configured TRWC committees.
But another Game & Fish proposal is likely to sail through; a trophy game license raffle, where you could buy a ticket for $20 and see if your number gets drawn for a bison, moose, bighorn sheep or mountain goat license; or pay $10 for a chance to win a cheap elk, deer, antelope or ewe bighorn license. A grizzly bear raffle ticket will only cost you $10, which seems cheap, but perhaps raffle participants won’t want to gamble on the long-running court battle over delisting the bear from Endangered Species protection.
More generally, the legislature has a long history of rejecting proposals for state or regional lotteries without wildlife tags, which a lot of other states use to grab a profitable chair at the gambling table. But no one seems likely to object to wild game gaming.
The license fees may face tougher going. There is fairly broad support among hunting and fishing enthusiasts, including groups like Trout Unlimited and the Wyoming Outdoor Council (Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish Wildlife opposes the license hikes – more on that below). But factions in the legislature – particularly with ties to agriculture – have often argued against the independence of the Game & Fish Commission and Department. They are likely to raise a stink, particularly about the indexing provision in the proposed legislation – which would allow the Game & Fish Commission to raise license rates to match annual rises in the cost of living. That would take away one of the remaining checks politicians still hold on Game & Fish.
In the Game & Fish Department’s pitch for license fee hikes – and it’s quite an elaborate pitch, with slide shows and video productions and public meetings around the state – the agency notes that the legislature relinquished control of wildlife management funds to the Game & Fish commission back in 1937. It’s a jealously-guarded gravy train. Hunting and fishing licenses provided the agency control over its own destiny, and for a long time was more than enough to grow the agency and build hunting and fishing activity, today, into a billion-dollar share of the state’s $9 billion tourism economy.
When the legislature has added new duties – for example, managing species like sage grouse to keep them off the federal Endangered Species list – it often provides money from the General Fund, an appropriation that now amounts to about $9 million, into the Game & Fish budget of about $70 million annually. Game & Fish also gets money from the federal government and the state’s Wildlife Trust Fund. But those license fees provide about 80 percent of the department’s budget.
Interestingly, hunting and fishing outfitters are not enthusiastic about shifting the burden off sportsmen, to the General Fund or elsewhere. This system, they feel, gives them inordinate influence. “When it comes to license fees and herd objectives,” says outfitter Todd Stevie, “we call the shots.”
Still, a lot of species consumed by sportsmen fail to pay their way. Fish, for instance. The department stocks 400,000 pounds of salmon and trout per year. Raising and feeding those fish in hatcheries costs about $4 million a year. The agency raises and releases pheasant at a cost of $23 per bird – a resident small game bird license costs $14 (the new proposal would lower that license to $10). Then there are helicopter flights to count big game, and programs to buy access across public lands for hunters and fishermen. Only elk, deer and antelope licenses actually bring in more revenue than it costs to manage those species.
But agency officials, and many outfitters and sportsmen, want to “keep politics out of (wildlife) management as much as possible,” as John Emmerich puts it. Translation: Don’t make us go begging to the politicians in the legislature for money, which Game & Fish must do whenever it wants to raise license fees. And when that happens, every few years, it always provokes fierce debate. It will in 2013.
Which brings us to “Phase II.”
“(Fees paid by) hunters and fishermen just can’t keep up with that demand,” says Emmerich, referring to costly programs that go beyond managing species killed for sport or consumption. And if the department has to make more cuts (even before Gov. Matt Mead called for 8 percent budget cuts from state agencies this year Game & Fish had already initiated cutbacks), “it’s going to impact traditional programs too.”
Phase II, then, means finding “non-traditional funding” for the future, likely from sources that don’t carry a rifle or a rod or a bow. Other states already do this. Arkansas, for instance, dedicates a small percentage of state sales taxes to conservation programs. Arizona shares some of the revenues from its state lottery.
Game & Fish officials say they don’t want to tilt the scale by advocating for a specific source of Phase II funding, and they won’t bring any proposals to the 2013 Legislature (they’re still in Phase I, after all). Emmerich says there will be a big public relations effort to gather ideas from constituents.
Conversations with outfitters, hunters, legislators, conservationists, and wildlife managers produced a number of suggestions, none of which seemed bulletproof: license plate sales (not nearly enough revenue), a lodging tax (targeting bird watching tourists and the like), a portion of fuel taxes (competing with the Highway Department), a piece of abundant mineral severance taxes (the state’s cash cow, but only so many teats), a higher subscription price on the publication “Wyoming Wildlife” (that might pay for one truck’s annual fuel bill) and voluntary purchases of conservation stamps by non-hunters (ah, volunteerism – hasn’t solved the problem in Idaho).
Agency officials know better than to look ahead to Phase II – maybe even unwise to talk about it – when the license fee battle still lies ahead in the 2013 Legislature.
“It’s going to be difficult and hard,” says Del McOmie (R-Lander), outgoing chairman of the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee. But he insists the fee hikes are tolerable and necessary. “Many who come to our meetings to complain pay more for booze whenever they go out to hunt than they do for licenses.”
The public relations battle for funding seems to be consuming a lot of Game & Fish resources these days, but it’s far from the only challenge facing the department.
Wildlife biologists have to be alert for diseases that can decimate species, like pink-eye in bighorn sheep, or the chronic wasting disease in ungulates which, before long, may force us all to wear biohazard suits when we butcher.
The biologists have to marshal scientific evidence to justify hunting quotas, and to convince federal officials that grizzly bears, for example, have recovered to levels where a hunting season is justified. Some of the research – which may involve helicopter surveys or habitat studies – is aimed at keeping species like sage grouse off the Endangered Species list. Wyoming’s protected zones for sage grouse – which ought to be the state bird, given the concentrations here – are now a model for other states.
And wildlife science is a complex and daunting task, particularly when climate change is affecting forage and behavior.
Sometimes, the problems of damaged habitat and other impacts are too great to be managed away. The mule deer population plunge in Sublette County – reflecting a problem throughout the West, but more extreme in this case – is a notable example. Over the last 20 years, thousands of deer have perished. Some blame massive energy development in the Pinedale Anticline and surrounding country, others point to a winter range damaged by severe drought. In any case, there are many fewer deer in the Wyoming Range and along the western slope of the Wind River Mountains, and even reduced hunting permits haven’t sparked a recovery.
“Game & Fish is going to have to do some real soul searching on whether they’re going to let this hunting go on at all,” says outfitter Gary Amerine, of Pinedale. The department’s soul-searching is underway in the form of aMule Deer Initiative, but there are forces at work that seem beyond its reach, including changes in the environment.
“It’s a tough thing to battle,” says Game & Fish’s Emmerich. “Subtle changes in moisture and temperature have favored grasses, not shrubs and succulent forbs.” That’s hard on species that need the higher nutrition of forbs, like moose, antelope, and deer. But it favors bighorn sheep and elk.
“Our elk areas are going gangbusters,” says outfitter Todd Stevie of Daniel. But it’s an ever-changing wildlife world, which means you have to keep updating the science. The elk, Stevie notes, don’t occupy the same “honey pots” where guides used to find them, nor do they gather in herds of hundreds. They form smaller groups because of the predators that harass them – grizzly bears and wolves.
Wolves, of course, have been a hot topic at the legislature for years as Wyoming battled with the federal government over the state’s efforts to treat the canines as predators, rather than trophy game, in much of its territory. With the arrival of Colorado’s Ken Salazar as federal Secretary of the Interior, Wyoming found a more sympathetic ear.
Even so, it took a lot of persuasion over the last two years for Game & Fish to convince legislators that the state wasn’t giving too much away by designating an area around Yellowstone where wolves could only be shot with a limited number of trophy game licenses. On the other side, environmental groups are dismayed – and litigious – about the huge swath of Wyoming where wolves can be shot on sight as predators.
Three lawsuits have now been filed in federal courts – two in Washington, D.C., one in Denver – to halt the Wyoming wolf season, and return Wyoming wolves to the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act. A who’s who of national environmental groups – the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and EarthJustice, among them – have signed on.
Wyoming Legislators two years ago found the wolf hunt hard to swallow too, but for opposite reasons; they thought it was too protective of the species. The season runs from October through December, and over 4,000 licenses have been sold.
It’s another money-losing duty for state wildlife managers, but according to them going well, which means there won’t be any howling at the legislature in 2013. In trophy hunting areas, 38 wolves have been taken, with the kills widely dispersed (though quotas in the Jackson area were quickly filled). Game & Fish has collected genetic samples from each animal. In the predator area, only 19 wolves have been reported killed.
“I don’t know that things could have gone any better,” said Steve Ferrell, who pitched the plan when he was Game & Fish director. “A lot of people expected a huge number would be taken in the predator zone. It hasn’t happened. There haven’t been any train wrecks.”
Wolves will not be in the headlines during the legislative session unless a judge steps in to invalidate the Wyoming management plan. In fact, there are few other wildlife-related issues to distract from the debate about Game & Fish funding.
Despite budget cuts brought on by falling mineral revenues, legislators are unlikely to go after the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, a fund created in 2005 to fund conservation projects. It’s a feel-good conservation project for a state government not noted for its environmental protection, and it has leveraged about $30 million over the years to protect wildlife habitat on public and private lands, most notably sage grouse areas. Gov. Matt Mead has padded the Trust with another $5 million in the slimmed down supplemental budget he proposed this month, because, according to his press secretary, “It exemplifies Wyoming’s leadership in balancing energy and conservation. Specifically, Governor Mead points to the Trust’s work to ensure species remain healthy and do not need formal protection.”
Currently, Wyoming bans hunters from using silencers – a law that some hunters feel makes it safer, because they can hear when other shooters are nearby. Legislators will consider a bill in the 2013 session to remove that ban.
The license fee issue, then, will be front and center, and the debate could be expansive, because it isn’t just about how much you pay to hunt elk. It’s about how state government is run. “(Game & Fish) does not experience the legislative scrutiny most agencies do and your budget oversight is not as expansive or rigorous as the (Joint Appropriation Committee)’s oversight,” critiqued Rep. Jaggi, a suggestion that the legislature’s budget hawks want to get their pencils involved.
It’s about the increasingly complex world of wildlife science and management. In a handout, Game & Fish listed “increasing threatened and endangered species issues, drought, invasive species, and continuing development on many of the state’s most important wildlife habitats.”
It’s about the needs a growing number of fee-free wildlife “consumers” who don’t shoot anything more than a camera. In comments on the fee hikes, Robb Hitchcock of Casper listed “birdwatchers, photographers, hikers, etc., and the state, municipalities, business owners and more casual beneficiaries such as motorists and tourists.”
It’s about the economy. “We are resolved to oppose any increase during these tough economic times,” wrote Bob Wharff, executive director of Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.
It’s even about climate change. “When it comes to habitat,” says Game & Fish’s Emmerich, “if climate changes significantly, it’s a tough thing to battle.”
And all these angles on the issue point toward a shared concern; the unique quality of Wyoming’s wildlife. “Our success rates for big game blow other states off the map,” says Steve Kilpatrick, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, which supports the increases. “We have quality and quantity here that other states wish they had. It’s a world-class resource, and it’s part of our culture.”
— Geoffrey O’Gara is a longtime Wyoming journalist. He was a Wyoming Public Television producer and host of the influential Capitol Outlook and Wyoming Chronicle programs. He is the author of What You See in Clear Water: Indians, Whites, and a Battle Over Water in the American West (2002) and A Long Road Home, Journeys Through America’s Present in Search of America’s Past (1989) and several other books. O’Gara served on the Fremont County District One school board for eight years. An avid cyclist, basketballer and fly fisherman, he lives in Lander.