Game & Fish Task Force Is Trying to Balance Funding Sources

Game & Fish Task Force Is Trying to Balance Funding Sources

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One of the biggest challenges for the Governor’s Task Force on Wyoming Game & Fish Funding is how to ease the burden of sportsmen who now raise almost all of the money the state spends on wildlife management.

At the group’s third meeting in Casper on Thursday, the 14 members present debated various recommendations that will be presented to Gov. Matt Mead next week. For many participants, the biggest need was how to get “non-consumptive users” (those who don’t fish or hunt, but still benefit from wildlife) to contribute to the effort.

The task force worked diligently to craft recommendations so they won’t raise the eyebrows of state lawmakers, who must approve any funding plan it develops. Issues included pumping more one-time money into the Wyoming Wildlife Natural Trust Fund for conservation and habitat projects, so proponents won’t need to keep coming back to the Legislature for more funds.

One proposal was to request $200 million, which would match the amount now in the trust fund, so the state would be able to raise more money from investments. The source would likely be the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account — better known as the state’s “rainy day fund” — which has a balance of more than $2 billion.

But Sen. Stan Cooper (R-Kemmerer) warned his task force colleagues that legislators probably wouldn’t be receptive to appropriating such a large amount. Given the state’s unstable revenue sources from the energy industry, he added, “Asking for [even] $100 million would be a hard sell.”

The task force hasn’t settled on how much money it will request.

Cooper and Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff (R-Jackson), co-chairmen of the Joint Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee, are both members of the Game & Fish task force. On Aug. 11, after he presents the group’s recommendations to the governor, Task Force Chairman Ryan Lance of Casper will present the proposals to the legislative panel.

Another tricky question is if lawmakers who narrowly chose to take the rare action to give the Game & Fish Department state general fund money earlier this year to pay for some employees’ health insurance premiums will be willing to do so again. Historically, the bulk of the agency’s revenue is derived from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.

Although no final vote was taken, the consensus seemed to be to not seek the health insurance money from the state if the Legislature would agree to three other task force recommendations to ease the funding burden on hunters and anglers.

During the public comment period, the task force was strongly criticized by a sportsmen’s group that charged it was sending the wrong message to hunters and fishermen as well as the general public.

“We seem to be going to the same sources [for revenue] time and time again,” said Robert Wharff of Evanston, executive director of the Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. “It’s frustrating we don’t see our solutions being implemented.”

Wharff maintained that while non-consumptive users — “everyone who makes a dime” off tourism and wildlife in Wyoming — should participate in finding funding solutions, the idea hunters and anglers haven’t successfully funded the Game & Fish operations is not true.

“We’ve done it forever,” Wharff said. “Don’t throw us out and say, ‘It’s not working.'” To me you’re saying no matter what [sportsmen] do, it’s futile.”

Wharff said wildlife watchers and others who enjoy the state’s great outdoors can still help raise funds the traditional way, by buying licenses.

“I buy a [hunting] license every year, even though I hardly ever kill anything,” he noted.

Chairman Lance said he understands the point Wharff made, but he disagrees with his ultimate conclusion.

“The take-home message I heard from Mr. Wharff is, ‘Don’t give up on sportsmen — we’ve funded the management of wildlife in this state over the long haul, and we can do it going forward,'” he said.

But the reality, Lance said, is that “we need new tools.”

“That includes maneuverability for funding the Game & Fish Commission, and that comes from their ability to set license fees within the parameters established by the Legislature,” conclusion. “The take-home message I heard from Mr. Wharff is, ‘Don’t give up on sportsmen — set the full cost of legislatively mandated programs and endangered species management.

“But once that’s done,” Lance added, “we’re going to be in a good position in the short- and mid-term to really address some of these issues and maintain the solvency of the department.

“The big question is over the long-term, should sportsmen continue to pay all of the freight?” he asked. “And if not, what should the structure look like to ensure non-traditional sources of revenue are infused into that system to reflect the true value of a multi-billion industry in our state?”