Senate File 45, which provides state General Fund monies to Game & Fish for grizzly bear management and to pick up employee insurance premiums, now goes to the House.
Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) accused SF 45, sponsored by the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Interim Committee, of trying to make “an end run” around seeking a fee increase. “The process has been a process that’s worked,” Bebout said.
But last week, House Bill 31, which would have allowed Game & Fish to raise fees, failed to be introduced, 26-32. The same body rejected a license fee increase last year, and fees haven’t seen an increase since 2007.
Supporters said by refusing to allow Game & Fish to obtain more operating funds by raising hunting and fishing license fees, the Legislature has handicapped the department and left it no choice but to seek state appropriations. Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan) and the other members of the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources committee championed the bill.
Members of the Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance, a coalition of ten sportsmen’s groups in Wyoming, lobbied the legislature to raise the license fees and support SF 45.
“Recent cuts have reduced hunting and fishing opportunities,” said Joshua Coursey of the Muley Fanatic Foundation. “At a time when we are seeing significant impacts to our big game herds, we should be increasing funding for wildlife research and management, not reducing it.”
Sen. Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) said Game & Fish wants to be regulated by sportsmen and fisherman as far as the tasks they work on, and do all of the decision-making about biologists and game wardens. “’But when we break the bank, we want you to fill up the balloon,’” is the department’s philosophy, he said. “They have great impact over our lives, but we have no control over them.”
Nicholas said creating a “hybrid budget” for Game & Fish funded by the state and sportsmen’s fees won’t work.
“The more money we give them, the more we’re involved [with their decisions], the more we’ll have a say in what they do,” Bebout, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, said. “This is a big step in that direction.”
But Sen. John Schiffer (R-Kaycee) downplayed any problems that could be created if Game & Fish has to go to the Legislature for a small part of its funding. “We have blended budgets,” he noted of other state agencies. “We manage them appropriately, and we understand the importance of independence.”
Sen. Bruce Burns said if Game & Fish were autonomous and independent, “We would give them the authority to raise their own license fees when they need them. We don’t do that. The Legislature controls the license fees, so when their expenses go up, they have no other way to cover them. That’s what’s been happening over the last six years.”
Burns added that the state has put additional burdens on the department, such as managing wolves and protecting endangered species such as the black-footed ferret.
“Game & Fish has done a great job for the last 70 years,” he declared. “Let them continue to do that job, but give them the resources to do it.”
Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta) told the senators that if the Legislature doesn’t address Game & Fish’s funding problems soon, by FY 2019 “we’re going to be in serious trouble.”
“The problem isn’t going to go away,” he added. “We’ve struggled to find a long-term solution … If we don’t deal with it today, we’ll be back here in two years with this as an interim topic. We don’t know what the best solution is, but this one certainly offers some potential.”
Sen. Paul Barnard (R-Evanston) agreed. “The process isn’t working, and this agency is suffering,” he said. “It’s just going to get worse and worse until we do something.”
In Fiscal Year 2013, the department spent $1.9 million on grizzly bear management and $4.7 million for insurance. Under the bill, Game & Fish would have to prepare a General Fund budget for FY 2007-08 that includes the two expenses.
Legislators opposed to this bill are ignoring the challenges facing wildlife in the state and their economic and cultural importance. It’s not good enough to just point your finger at the House’s failure to pass a license fee. Senators need to help find a long-term funding solution in order for Game and Fish to continue to fulfill its mission well.