The decline in the number of hunters, who pay license fees to state fish and wildlife agencies, is causing a funding crisis, which—we can hope—should cause a crisis of conscience for those agencies. An NPR story that aired on March 20, 2018, entitled “Decline in Hunters Threatens How U.S. Pays for Conservation” explains well the problem faced by the agencies: fewer hunters, less in license fees, smaller budgets. Only 5 percent of Americans now consider themselves hunters, down from 10 percent a half century ago.
The NPR story was prompted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s release of its “2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.” The survey is done every five years, and in 2016
• 11.6 million people spent $25.6 billion ($2,216/hunter) on hunting,
• 35.8 million people spent $46.1 billion (1,288/angler) on fishing, and
• 80.6 million people spent $79.9 billion ($942/watcher) on watching wildlife.
Mostly due to where most of their money comes from, most state fish and wildlife agencies are excessively oriented toward hunting and fishing, which are either in absolute decline or relatively static in a nation with a growing population that is increasingly urban. State fish and wildlife budgets increasingly don’t reflect public wants—but they should.
Wolves at the Door in Oregon
Take the case of Oregon. The budget of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) comes from several pots of money: license funding (28 percent), federal funding (38 percent), obligated funds (15 percent), statutorily dedicated funds (10 percent), the state general fund (8 percent), and lottery funds (1 percent). Although ODFW acknowledges that “88 percent of Oregon’s wildlife [species]. . . are not hunted, trapped, or angled” (in agency parlance, “nongame” species), most of the budget goes to conserving and managing the relatively few species of Oregon’s fish and wildlife that are hunted and fished.
This leaves other fish and wildlife species out in the cold—for instance, wolves, a “nongame” species in most states. Relatively, this is an improvement over the past when wolves were considered mere vermin (I grew up hearing about “varmints”) that could be shot at will. Now tht wolves are moving back from the extinction precipice, some fish and wildlife agencies want to provide hunts for wolves—as well as lions and cougars and bears, oh my!
Most Oregonians generally love wolves. However, ODFW is a reluctant participant in making Oregon again a home for wolves. The agency too easily hands out money to livestock operators who claim losses due to wolf predation. ODFW too easily kills, or authorizes others to kill, “problem” wolves that have, at least allegedly, preyed upon domestic livestock. Predators practice predation upon prey. It’s what they do. Most of what they kill are big game (deer and elk), which annoys ODFW because wolves don’t pay ODFW $33.50 for an annual hunting license, nor do wolves pay for a tag for each deer ($27.50) or elk ($48.00) they kill.
When a hunter poaches game (the opposite of nongame) and ODFW can prove it, the agency comes down on the outlaw hunter or angler like a ton of bricks. Yet when a hunter claimed that three wolves were ganging up on him and he shot one because he feared for his life, ODFW gave the guy a pass, even though it appears the wolf was running away from the hunter. It’s not self-defense if one’s attacker is retreating. Unfortunately, we’ll never be sure because a proper forensic analysis isn’t possible when the evidence, in this case the dead wolf, is hastily destroyed.
Better to Diversify Than to Double Down
As state fish and wildlife agencies get shorted for funds, the bureaucratic tendency is often to double down on the traditional support base of hunters and anglers. However, for a multitude of cultural, social, economic, demographic, and other reasons, doubling down on a declining user base will not likely be an effective long-term strategy. Better to embrace the vast majority of Americans who intrinsically appreciate fish and wildlife, whether they actively watch them or just generally feel better knowing that fish and wildlife are still out there.
Here are some reasonable solutions to the funding crisis for state fish and wildlife agencies. No single solution is a silver bullet, but together they can be silver buckshot and get the job done.
· Change the name. If they haven’t already, state fish and wildlife agencies should replace “game” in their name with “wildlife.” Fourteen state fish and wildlife agencies still have “game” in their name. The first step toward encompassing all wildlife in one’s mission is to start saying “wildlife.”
· Diversify staff. Alas, most of the so-called wildlife biologists on state fish and wildlife agency staff are, in fact, game biologists—with a focus on big game, not also small game, at that.
· Embrace science. A recent article in Applied Ecology evaluated 667 species management systems across 62 government entities in the United States and Canada and found that most were lacking in the scientific hallmarks of evidence, transparency, and independent review. They are practicing wildlife management as an art, not a science.
· Ban the word “nongame.” Words matter. This one says that game is the norm. To support the mission to conserve and manage all wildlife, start by banning this word.
· Diversify state funding. For example, deer and elk tags could be sold to nonhunters (or hunters) who want to give over to wolves and other large predators their annual opportunity to kill a deer or an elk.
· Diversify federal funding (part 1). Legislation pending in Congress would use federal oil and gas revenues to fund states to conserve and manage the most important wildlife, hunted or not. I’m not keen on using blood money from oil and gas exploitation to fund wildlife, but such is already the major way the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund is funded by Congress. Better than the money going to this and most other things Congress favors these days.
· Diversify federal funding (part 2). Just like federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, a tax should be imposed on outdoor equipment such as binoculars, bikes, camping gear, and hiking boots to fund the conservation and management of wildlife species neither hunted nor angled.
Just a thought (it could evoke a northern spotted owl). Alternatively, and/or a silhouette of a howling wolf. Source: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife