Out of Bounds

Paying for the Outdoors

I’ve been paying for conservation licenses in about a half dozen states for years

By Rob Breeding

As Montana implements a new requirement that users of FWP fishing access sites and wildlife management areas need to purchase conservation licenses, as anglers and hunters have for years, I am reminded that efforts like these sometimes result in contention between hunters and anglers and what’s sometimes called non-consumptive outdoor user groups.

A few years ago I wrote about a “report” making the rounds that purported to show hunters and anglers didn’t pay for wildlife management in the United States. 

The “report” was just a bunch of anti-hunting and trapping advocacy tarted up to look like the sort of peer-reviewed research faculty at universities produce. The Nevada-based authors intended to counter the “hunters and anglers pay” message you hear at contentious FWP Commission meetings when it considers an issue that more directly interests non-consumptives.

Wildlife commissions have a natural affinity with hunters and anglers, and to a lesser degree trappers, because those users do pay for wildlife management where it matters most: on the state level. It’s just a matter of fact that hunters and anglers (and non-hunting firearm enthusiasts), through license fees and excise taxes paid with the purchase of firearms and fishing equipment, do fund the vast majority of the operating budgets for state wildlife agencies.

That pro-hunter/angler bias is understandable, but that doesn’t mean non-consumptive users shouldn’t have a voice in the process. It just means that sometimes non-consumptive recreationists are arguing with users who’ve been putting their hard-earned cash behind their interests.

Frustrated they couldn’t get the Nevada state wildlife commission to see things their way, the authors of that faux report tried another tack: undermining the idea that hunters and anglers were footing the bill for wildlife management. To do so they added up the budgets of all the federal land management agencies — the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and others — to show that hunter and angler contributions to wildlife management were just a drop in the bucket compared to what American taxpayers lay out annually. 

The report’s premise was false. Those agencies have huge responsibilities that have little or nothing to do with wildlife management. While those agencies do much to manage our public lands which benefit wildlife, and hunters and anglers often make use of campgrounds and other amenities these agencies maintain, wildlife management happens mostly on the state level. 

In Montana, 77% of FWP’s budget comes directly from hunters and anglers. Other state and federal funding comes only because those hunter and anglers dollars provide the necessary match the state agency needs to access additional revenue.

The percentage might not be so high, but the manufacturers of tents and camp stoves and high-tech outdoor clothing and all the other stuff people buy to better enjoy outdoor fun have steadfastly refused to support the kind of excise tax hunters and anglers pay when they buy their equipment.

So I have limited sympathy for folks who’ll be surprised or angry they now have to buy a state conservation license to use an FWP-managed river access site or wildlife area. I’ve been paying for conservation licenses in about a half dozen states for years. Did people think those vault toilets and boat ramps and parking areas just paid for themselves?

My favorite FWP employee, Region 1’s Dillon Tabish, had this to say in Micah Drew’s Flathead Beacon story on the new requirement.

“Hunters and anglers have been footing the bill for our wildlife conservation, public access, and recreational opportunities, and this is a small way to make it more fair and equitable for all recreational users.”

The point is not to conservation-shame non-consumptives, but Tabish’s point is correct. The burden isn’t horrible, just $8 for adults and $4 for kids 12-17. And it is fairer for all users.

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