Lessons from the Montana Wolf Management Stamp

Lessons from the Montana Wolf Management Stamp

Like most state fish and wildlife agencies, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (MFWP) derives the bulk of its budget from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and matching federal dollars from the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program. And like many other state agencies, MFWP is searching for ways to broaden and increase funding to support the ever growing demands for conservation. One idea recently advanced by MFWP Commission Chair Dan Vermillion was to create a voluntary "Wolf Management Stamp" that people interested in wolf conservation could purchase to supplement MFWP's revenue from the sale of wolf hunting licenses. Reaction to this proposal illustrates some important challenges state fish and wildlife agencies must overcome to enhance their traditional funding model, reports the Wildlife Management Institute.

The proposed rule to create Montana's "Wolf Management Stamp" set the price of a stamp at $20, one dollar more than the price of a resident wolf hunting license. Either residents or nonresidents who wanted to contribute to wolf management could purchase any number of stamps. Funding received above that needed to administer the cost of the program would be divided equally between grants awarded through the state's livestock loss reduction program for nonlethal, preventative measures to reduce depredation; wolf monitoring, habitat protection or acquisition within occupied wolf habitat; scientific research of wolves, or public education and outreach activities relating to wolves; and the hiring of additional wardens within occupied wolf habitat. The draft rule was published on June 16. MFWP invited public comment through July 25 and planned to make a final decision on September 4, 2014.

As is often the case in issues related to wolves, the proposed stamp generated highly polarized debate. Although many advocates for wolf conservation, including both hunters and non-hunters, expressed support for broader funding for MFWP's wolf program, some expressed reservations about how the funding would be used. Comments in support of the proposed rule creating the stamp from some non-hunters suggested restricting use of any revenue from the stamp to non-lethal management and efforts to increase wolf numbers or distribution. Others saw limiting use of funds to non-lethal methods as a dangerous precedent. Several wolf advocacy groups opposed the stamp, claiming that funds would merely be used to supplement hunting license dollars to continue an unacceptable management regime designed to control wolf numbers through hunting and trapping. Some hunters who opposed the stamp expressed concern that this could give pro-wolf interests greater influence over MFWP's management of wolves, to the perceived detriment of prey populations and hunting opportunity. The intensity of the debate and nature of the rhetoric led to concerns that the department's authority to generate alternative funding through mechanisms such as the Wolf Conservation Stamp could be challenged in the next legislative session if the rule was approved. Ultimately, MFWP Director Hagener decided last month to postpone any decision to create the stamp, pending further efforts to resolve differences between the competing interests.

While the tenor of this debate was exacerbated by the powerful emotions surrounding wolves, two underlying issues are relevant to other efforts by state fish and wildlife agencies to broaden their funding. The lack of relationships with citizens who do not hunt or fish can lead to indifference or mistrust that undermines public support for new revenue sources. At the same time, the longstanding relationship between agencies and hunters that has fueled conservation for the past century can also create resistance to allowing other interests to help fund state agencies.

The debate over the Montana wolf stamp is not the only example of some hunters' fear over the loss of influence in decisions if other interests contribute to agency funding. In Idaho, the Department of Fish and Game organized a "Wildlife Summit" in 2012 that embraced all Idahoans with the theme, "Idaho's Wildlife Belongs to You" as a starting point to discuss broader funding. The agency also engaged staff from all levels of the department as part of their in-service training program in discussion of agency funding and ways to address the expanding demands on the agency. The reaction of some hunters to these two department efforts was so strong it has led agency leaders to reassess efforts to broaden funding at this time.

The appointment of a Blue Ribbon Panel chaired by former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal and Bass Pro Shop's CEO Johnny Morris to explore expanded funding for fish and wildlife conservation, announced at the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies' (AFWA) annual meeting last month, illustrates the importance states place on broadening revenues beyond license sales and matching federal revenue from the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration (WSFR) program. The Wildlife Management Institute's President, Dr. Steve Williams, serves on the panel with a distinguished group of conservation leaders. This panel will build on the efforts of the AFWA "Teaming With Wildlife Initiative" to find new ways to enhance funding for conservation. To support this panel's work, and other efforts to expand funding, state agencies need to help opponents to broader funding understand that this is not a threat to the partnership with hunters and anglers built over the past century.

The future of hunting will not be determined by the source of state agency revenue. The right to hunt has been embedded in the constitutions of numerous states and managing wildlife to provide hunting opportunities will always be a core function of state agencies. Importantly, though, excluding non-hunters from contributing to agency funding does not mean they won't have a voice in agency decision-making. The Public Trust Doctrine ? often cited as a pillar of the "North American Model of Wildlife Conservation" ? vests state agencies with equal fiduciary responsibility to all citizens ? hunters and non-hunters alike. Administrative procedures acts universally mandate agencies listen to all citizens. And, if nothing else, non-hunting interests that are excluded from agency-conducted processes can use other means of affecting decisions, including legislative action and ballot initiatives. Opponents to broader funding need to recognize that insisting on the status quo will not maintain their influence; it will only mean that agencies have less money to address an ever-expanding workload.

At the same time, the lack of relationships with non-hunters can lead to indifference toward or mistrust of state fish and wildlife agencies by citizens who do not hunt or fish. This can lead to inadequate public support for new funding or demands for constraints on use of any new revenue. Agency leaders and administrators recognize that some restrictions on use of funding, like those related to the use of license revenue and WSFR dollars, are beneficial. But narrow mandates can hamstring their ability to meet program needs. Agencies need to focus energy on establishing connections and trust with other interests to lay the groundwork for support for funding and flexibility in how it may be used. Given the time it takes to build a relationship, agencies cannot wait until they decide to promote a new funding mechanism to start reaching out to new constituents.

In addition to Dr. William's involvement with the Blue Ribbon Panel, WMI is working to support broader agency funding by developing strategies to address traditional constituents' concerns over the impact of broader funding on hunting and fishing programs. WMI believes that states must be proactive on this issue to avoid the kind of setbacks experienced recently in Montana and Idaho. (cs)

October 16, 2014