Funding agencies and other pitfallsOne of the most onerous tasks of a state wildlife agency employee is to convince the hunting and fishing public that a license fee increase is a noble and necessary idea.
One of the most onerous tasks of a state wildlife agency employee is to convince the hunting and fishing public that a license fee increase is a noble and necessary idea.
I know, because I’ve been there. Two hunters may arrive at a check station in a $40,000 pickup towing a pair of ATVs worth $8,000 each and perched on a $2,500 trailer, but they will tell you that increasing their $20 elk license is unthinkable.
That’s what the State of Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) is facing right now — another license fee increase, the first in a half dozen years. But as bureaucracies often do, the leaders obviously acted without intelligent thought. Because after the last legislature froze state salaries, someone at FWP figured out a way to circumvent the legislature — they found money somewhere in the agency’s own coffers, and according to newspaper reports, gave 650 of the agency’s 750 employees a pay increase.
I can sympathize with the support staff, biologists, wardens and technicians who needed the raise. But somehow the leaders bestowed increases upon themselves of 13 to 17 percent! Not good! In the public relations field, we call this “leading with your chin.”
So now, in the wake of this questionable action, FWP personnel will have the unenviable task of selling a license increase to the public. It is not that an increase isn’t warranted — resident licenses are ridiculously low in Montana. For example, after the prerequisite $8 conservation license, Montana residents can buy an elk license for $20, a deer license for $16, black bear for $19. A season-long upland bird license sells for an unbelievable $7.50. (It should be noted that approximately 2/3s of FWP’s revenue comes from the sale of non-resident licenses, such as the combination elk/deer/upland bird license that currently sells for $912.00).
In any case, I hope the agency gets its license fee increase, but I predict it will be a harrowing affair with the hunting public, and FWP is likely to be savaged in the next legislative session as it was in the last.
When I started working for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in 1975, agency funding was a big issue and it has not gotten any smaller for most agencies. Conservationists in Wyoming struggled for decades to establish a Wildlife Trust Fund, where monies from mining taxes and matching funds from other sources could be used for conservation projects. The Wyoming Legislature finally established the Trust Fund in 2005, and The Trust Fund has since pumped almost $30 million into conservation projects.
Other states have handled things differently. Alaska, for example, was awash in oil money when my wife worked for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. The state still relies heavily on oil money but is not as affluent as it was during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The state of Missouri took an entirely different route several decades ago, and has been the envy of most states. It managed to get less than a 1 percent tax on soft drinks — monies that have been used for conservation purposes. At one time, this amounted to a few million dollars a year, which gave the Missouri Department of Conservation an enormous advantage over other states.
Since the 1930s hunters have paid an 11 percent excise tax on firearms and ammunition under the Pittman-Robertson Act, and since the early ‘50s anglers have contributed in similar fashion under the Dingall-Johnson Act. About 20 years ago there was a movement to establish a similar tax on kayaks, binoculars, backpacks and the like, but the non-hunting public was not interested, and that effort went nowhere.
Lots of hunters would like to keep the situation as it is, fearing anti-hunting influences that could change the entire direction of wildlife agencies. Others insist that it is time for “non-consumptive” users to start contributing to wildlife conservation. The debate continues…