Line by line, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s complex, $70.5 million budget is tough for anyone other than an accountant to understand.
Equally perplexing is what stays and what goes in the face of a
$7 million budget shortfall due to a failed fee hike request.
And yet the cause of the agency’s budget-cutting dilemma is simple:
n About 80 percent of Game and Fish’s budget comes from sportsmen in the form of license fees and federal taxes on hunting and fishing equipment.
In that sense, the agency is statutorily charged with being largely self-supportive.
n More than 60 percent of the department’s spending is dictated by the Legislature.
In that sense, the agency is hamstrung by lawmakers’ whims and mandates – i.e. government red tape.
n While the department’s net cut is $4.6 million, the cut actually totals $7 million. The difference is due to predicted increases in mostly mandated expenses such as crop damage claims and feed grounds.
In that sense, Game and Fish is on the fast track to being in the unenviable position of the U.S. Postal Service – a government agency expected to operate like a business but, at the same time, often told how to operate.
This past winter, Game and Fish officials lobbied the Legislature to raise some hunting and fishing license fees in order to offset budget reductions. Lawmakers hotly debated the resulting legislation before killing it. Agency officials were told to go back and look at their programs and pinpoint areas of excess.
Seriously? Are we to believe there are significant areas of fat in that 40 percent of the budget that is self-sustained and not legislatively controlled?
Meanwhile, lawmakers continued to pile on the mandates, which include claims for damages 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.
Not unlike the U.S. Postal Service, relatively speaking, Game and Fish salaries are also state-regulated. In 2011, the Legislature asked all agencies to bring employee salaries to 91 percent of the average of 12 other Western states.
Back in the 1890s, the state footed the bill for Game and Fish, like every other agency. In the 1930s, its mission was changed to: Conserve Wyoming’s abundant wildlife and serve the people based on a budget supported by license fees and federal tax funds.
As expected, things became less simple over time.
Human progress meant managing habitat in order to sustain healthy wildlife. Wildlife disease management grew more and more necessary – and costly. Predator control responsibility increasingly shifted Game and Fish’s way. Fish stocking was made necessary in order to meet anglers’ needs. To name a few.
It truly is a complicated issue. But not one without solutions.
License fee hikes must seriously be considered.
So too should creative ideas for getting funding from nonhunters and anglers, but those who simply are wildlife watchers.
Wyoming’s wildlife are a major part of the state’s No. 2 industry – tourism. While tourists generate state revenues and support businesses in the form of shopping, eating out and lodging, those monies do not directly benefit Game and Fish’s mission.
Why not apply, say, a nominal lodging tax toward Game and Fish so wildlife watchers, not just sportsmen, help foot the bill?
Surely there is a better path than the one we’re on.