A diverse collection of conservation groups sought “common ground” in broadening funding and support for Montana’s wildlife management at a day-long meeting in Helena Wednesday.
The meeting, called “Finding Common Ground to Sustain Fish and Wildlife,” was the second organized by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks exploring alternative funding sources, with the vast majority of dollars currently coming from hunting, fishing and trapping license sales. The meeting was the first since the Legislature recently approved fee increases for several hunting and fishing licenses -- the first since 2005.
“The question that comes out of that is how often and how many times do we go back to our traditional constituents of sportsmen,” said FWP director Jeff Hagener. “We’ve got no shortage of issues and demands that come to the agency.”
FWP manages all wildlife in the state, using license dollars for hunted and nonhunted species, he said. That includes about $5 million of the agency’s overall budget of $75 million managing species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
In addition to license fees, the majority of remaining FWP funding comes from federal excise taxes on firearms and fishing equipment. A potential excise tax on other outdoor equipment has been an ongoing discussion on the national level through a blue-ribbon panel, but such a tax would mean the state would have to generate matching funds to qualify, Hagener said.
“Assuming something happens on the federal level, we’re not going to be eligible unless we find the dollars, and we’d have to find other funding sources for managing all species in Montana,” he said.
Conservation groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife delved into FWP’s business model and potential of tapping into groups like wildlife watchers for additional support.
Wednesday’s discussion was a continuation of an October meeting following FWP’s rejection of a wolf management stamp. The stamp would have created an innovative mechanism for non-hunters to financially contribute to wolf management, but met opposition from several hunting groups concerned with alternative funding’s impact on current wildlife management.
“For me, all that common ground implies is what we do agree on and do share,” said Ilona Popper of Bear Creek Council, a supporter of the wolf stamp. “We all share a common concern about wildlife and a shared concern about continued Fish, Wildlife and Parks management of our wildlife rather than some default entity.”
Any discussion of broadened funding must come within the context of 100 years of conservation driven through hunters and anglers, echoed several hunter advocates.
“The agency is constitutionally mandated to manage wildlife for every citizen, and recognize there’s a legitimate stake for the (nonhunting) groups,” said Helena-area hunter Ben Lamb. “These organizations have a legitimate right to be at the table for these discussions recognizing the amazing conservation work the hunting community has done.”
Popper emphasized that her group is not anti-hunting, but asserted that many groups or individuals from the non-hunting conservation sector would oppose contributing financially to programs such as lethal predator control.
While the groups acknowledged the array of ideologies and agendas in the room, they did reach a general sense of support for FWP and at least the exploration of alternative funding sources.
“Regardless of your agenda, as long as FWP is at the helm and we can broaden the base of support financially and sustainably, we have an obligation to pass this on to our future generations,” said Marc Cooke, president of Wolves of the Rockies.
Suggestions for a mechanism ranged from voluntary to mandatory programs, with opposing views on what would be most effective.
Zach Strong of the Natural Resources Defense Council maintained that the wolf stamp concept could succeed, and the meeting should not give up on voluntary programs.
“I’m not naive enough to think that you can generate a lot of money voluntarily,” said Elk Foundation president David Allen. “If you start restricting money to a species or category of species, it won’t be very long before programs are in disarray.”
Other suggestions for funding mechanisms included user fees for launching a boat from a fishing access site, fees for guided wildlife viewing and exploring programs in other states such as lottery funding or moving employee benefits to state general funds.
“I’m hoping we come out of this with recommendations for the agency’s work that everyone can live with and recommendations for funding the agency,” said Montana Wildlife Federation executive director Dave Chadwick.
Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org