For Tom Maechtle, it’s not a hard decision: Lack of habitat equals a lack of fish and game. And lack of fish and game means fewer opportunities for sportsmen.
Simply leaving things alone won’t improve habitat. We’ve created a landscape that needs help, he said. A wildfire in northeast Wyoming, for example, offers people a choice. We can encourage native plants or leave the rangeland alone and allow invasive species such as cheet grass to move in.
“Biologists help guide those decisions,” said Maechtle, president of Bighorn Environmental Consultants in Sheridan.
Unfortunately, he said, matching dollars from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department intended to improve habitat may be one of the first things to go under the new budget woes.
The Game and Fish Commission will vote July 9 on millions of dollars in budget cuts for fiscal year 2014 after the state Legislature voted last winter against hunting and fishing license fee increases. The reduction raises the prospect of cuts to popular programs, including habitat management, fish stocking and sportsmen’s access. Game and Fish officials are also considering another $1.5 million in cuts to the 2015 budget, which could include slashing whole programs, reassigning jobs and darkening vacant positions.
“We have to make cuts where we can make them,” said Bob Wharff, executive director of the Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. “I think we need to look at what programs make sense and what programs don’t make sense.”
Exactly what should be cut, or how to raise enough money to carry Game and Fish into the future, is up for debate. Game and Fish critics say the department is too fat and needs to trim its costs. Game and Fish officials say their hands are tied.
The department has little leeway in how to spend its money, Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott said. More than 60 percent of the department’s spending is mandated by the Legislature, including claims for damage to farms and ranches by wildlife, coupons that reimburse landowners for wildlife harvested on private property and services that the agency shares with other departments, such as the state auditor. Salaries are also mandated.
In 2011, the Legislature asked all departments to bring employee salaries to 91 percent of the average of the 12 other Western states.
About 80 percent of Game and Fish’s $70.5 million budget comes from sportsmen in the form of license fees and federal taxes on hunting and fishing equipment. If Game and Fish can’t raise money through license fee increases, it has to make cuts. If more than 60 percent of the budget is mandated by the Legislature, then the cuts must come from programs and services that aren’t required, such as habitat, access and fish stocking, Talbott said.
Matching salaries to other neighboring states was fine when Wyoming had a large surplus, but maybe those kinds of raises aren’t responsible anymore, said state Rep. Allen Jaggi, R-Lyman, who is also a member of the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee.
The department also needs to carefully look at each program and see if it follows the original mission of managing wildlife and serving people, Wharff, with the Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, said.
If a program is losing money and doesn’t directly serve Game and Fish’s mission, then maybe it should be cut, he said.
Talbott said the department did just that with its cuts to the 2013 budget and then the 2014 one. Department officials are recommending the commission cut the annual Hunting and Fishing Heritage Expo, money for new access easements and some fish stocking, among other things.
The cuts total more than $7 million. But, the net loss will be less because of predicted increases in some of the department’s mandatory expenses. Feedgrounds will likely increase by about $900,000. Damage claims will increase $770,000 and shared expenses with other departments in the state will increase $800,000. The end result will be a 2014 budget $4.6 million, or 6.5 percent, lower than the 2013 budget.
“I think we have done a very thorough and complete job in looking at every program and trying to see how they can be more effective,” Talbott said. “Now it’s going to come down to programs and staff.”
The Game and Fish Department’s original mission was to manage wildlife that could be hunted, trapped or fished. There weren’t issues like chronic wasting disease or invasive species, Jaggi said.
“I’m thinking we need to take care of the animals we hunt, trap and fish, to be paid for by the animals that we hunt, trap and fish,” he said.
Programs managing aquatic invasive species and sensitive species shouldn’t be paid for entirely by the sportsmen, he said.
Sheridan sportsman Larry Durante agrees.
“My big issue here is there are a lot of programs that the sportsmen that recreate in Wyoming are financing, like wolves, taking care of the bears, depredation programs, brucellosis, invasive species, black-footed ferrets, the walk-in program,” he said. “Not just sportsmen use these programs or benefit from them; other segments in Wyoming or society benefit from these programs.”
The state’s general fund allocated $5.6 million in 2013 to pay for five Game and Fish programs: sage grouse, nongame species, wolf management, aquatic invasive species and veterinary services, said John Kennedy, Game and Fish’s deputy director.
An additional $1.2 million comes from the Game and Fish Commission’s budget to help supplement those programs in areas such as staff time and vehicle maintenance, Kennedy said.
Even though elk, deer and antelope are the money-makers for the department, Game and Fish is mandated by statute to manage all wildlife, he said.
Maybe some of the areas like aquatic invasive species can be paid for by other departments or groups, Jaggi said. The agriculture industry and local water users would also be hurt by an outbreak of invasive mussels, for example.
“Somebody needs to take care of that, but is that totally the sportsmen of Wyoming that are supposed to do that?” he asked.
No government agency wants to lay off people. But, when faced with a budget crisis, sometimes hard decisions need to be made, Jaggi said.
“If you cannot cover your bills with the money you have, you have to lay people off, cut some programs, something,” he said. “That’s the way businesses run.”
If and when the state climbs into a better financial place, then maybe positions and programs could be added again, he said.
Wharff thinks the department needs to consider partnering more with local nonprofits. Pheasant stocking, for example, could be done by local pheasant conservation groups instead of Game and Fish employees.
He also thinks Game and Fish needs to consider how much programs like the bird farms cost. Department officials should compare the cost of one of their birds to a bird on the private market.
The problem with hard choices such as cuts to habitat programs is their long-term impacts on sportsmen and also on Wyoming’s economy, said Neil Thagard, the western outreach director for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
“Here in Wyoming we’re darned lucky we have fantastic wildlife populations, great fishing and angling opportunities, and that is attributed to following good science,” he said. “We don’t have wildlife by accident. It takes an effort, it takes funding and it takes science-based analysis.”