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No Pay, No Say

Even in the best of times, the funding system for state fish and wildlife management is grossly inadequate. But three states have implemented partial fixes, and Congress may soon offer federal relief.
Audubon    Jan./Feb. 2010

Shortly after I signed on as a wildlife journalist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Game in 1970, we changed the “Game” part of our title to “Wildlife.” This, it was explained, would better define and expedite our legal mandate of tending all wild creatures, not just those that could legally be shot or caught or, as we preferred, “harvested.”

But there was little change because then, as now, almost all the division’s income came from sales of fishing and hunting licenses and federal excise taxes on guns, ammo, hunting equipment, fishing tackle, and motorboat fuel. It’s the same in most states. Therefore, with just a few exceptions, wildlife agencies pretty much do the bidding of sportsmen—this to the detriment not just of wildlife but of the sportsmen themselves, because they tend to confuse long-term best interests with immediate appetites. “Nongame,” by which managers refer to that 99.9999 percent of our biota that sportsmen can’t “harvest,” gets much more attention these days than in the 1970s—but nothing close to what it needs. And the term itself says it all about priorities; it’s like flipping your cigar butt into Puget Sound and calling the Pacific “nontobacco.”

In the first half of the 20th century, sportsmen had saved North American wildlife from unregulated take, deforestation, and Dust Bowl devastation. They did this by pushing through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, by getting market hunting banned, by demanding to pay for hunting and fishing licenses to maintain state wildlife agencies that set seasons and bag limits, by demanding to tax themselves for their gear, and by demanding to pay for duck stamps, which facilitate the purchase and maintenance of national wildlife refuges.

But in the 1970s the sporting culture I found in Massachusetts and nationally had devolved. By and large, hunters and anglers were unengaged in environmental issues, insular, deeply suspicious of the Earth Day generation of which I was part. Their main issues were imaginary threats to gun ownership and what they invariably perceived as inadequate numbers of hatchery trout and game-farm pheasants, the mass production of which constituted the principal business of our agency. I learned much during my five years with the division—no lesson more important than this: Good management and genuine recovery of fish and wildlife can happen only with dedicated public funding. Hunting and fishing license revenue, even combined with federal aid, can’t do it.

Still, the two laws that levy excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear and motorboat fuel have been among the most efficient vehicles for keeping state wildlife agencies semi-solvent. Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration is apportioned to the states via the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration by the Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950. The genius of these statutes is that they deny funding to states in which politicians raid license revenue, as they are always tempted to do, especially during a recession. This doesn’t stop the raids, but it invariably makes the politicians return the revenue they’ve purloined. When I asked the Fish and Wildlife Service’s northeast federal-aid chief, John Organ, where the attempted diversions have taken place, he replied: “It would be easier to tell you where they haven’t taken place.” He presides over 13 states, and politicians have tried to divert license revenue in eight in the last several months. But in every case it took only a stern letter from his agency and resultant invective from outraged sportsmen for the politicians to give back the money.

In 2003, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney led one of the most brazen raids ever attempted, the Fish and Wildlife Service stuffed him by giving him 30 days to return the money or forfeit $4.6 million. In March 2009 the service blocked a similar raid by the Massachusetts House. Two equally grotesque raids in California and Illinois were recently blocked by the service. Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich had actually succeeded in a diversion, but immediately after his ouster the legislature returned the money.

“Has a state ever decided just to steal license revenue and forget about federal aid?” I inquired of Organ.

“Not yet,” he replied. “But I always wonder about that. In the grand scheme, a state might say, ‘Six million bucks. So what? We’re going to sell off these lands for development and get a billion dollars.’ ”

Modest improvements were under way even before I left the division. In 1974 The Nature Conservancy helped establish the Natural Heritage Program, a farsighted and ambitious plan to inventory and restore native ecosystems by establishing partnerships between state wildlife agencies, museums, universities, and conservation groups. Perceiving the effort as a threat to their power base, sportsmen and managers fought it viciously. But environmentalists were gaining in political power, and as old-guard managers retired and died off, young, enlightened wildlife professionals were moving into leadership positions. By the late 1980s every state had a natural heritage program. Today the network includes 82 programs from Canada to the Amazon, almost 1,000 scientists, and a collective annual budget of about $45 million. Such reforms continue, but they don’t begin to keep pace with new threats to fish and wildlife such as global warming and an increasing human population.

Missouri is one state in which the sporting culture never devolved. Rather than puffing about the accomplishments of their dead ancestors while attempting to preserve their power base by fighting public funding, Missouri sportsmen built a management model for the nation. It wasn’t easy. The Conservation Federation of Missouri—which includes virtually all the state’s hunting and fishing outfits—started its campaign for increased revenue for the Missouri Department of Conservation in 1969, 32 years after it had shepherded through a constitutional amendment to establish the agency. The federation sponsored a ballot initiative that would have raised $20 million a year by levying a one-cent tax on each bottle of soda. But the drive withered under intense lobbying by the St. Louis-based Seven Up Inc.


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