Paying for State Wildlife Conservation

Paying for State Wildlife Conservation

Origami by Giom. Stag design by Fred Rohm; Bat by Won Park.

In 1694, with its whitetails already devastated by overhunting and habitat loss, the Massachusetts Bay Colony prohibited deer hunting for half the year. New Hampshire did the same in 1741. Decades before the Revolutionary War, residents of the Northeast were already witnessing and responding to the effects of overexploitation.

By the 1820s, towns across the Northeast had begun working to restore depleted fisheries. Hundreds of coastal streams were managed for migratory alewives. Hundreds of inland ponds were stocked with pickerel. And thousands of settlements around the region petitioned for restrictions on fishing methods.

As historian Richard Judd documents in Common Lands, Common People, these measures marked some of the first collective efforts among Euro-American colonists to steward the wild resources upon which they depended. These measures also set the stage for the emergence of state conservation agencies.

Between 1860 and 1870, states across the Northeast appointed fish commissioners to consider the restoration of migratory fish runs, the stocking of inland waters, and the effects of dams and pollution. Before long, each commission’s mandate expanded to include game animals. For decades, these commissions were funded by modest state appropriations. In 1897, for instance, the Vermont legislature allocated $4,750 for the “protection and propagation of fish and game.” It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that states began collecting revenue from hunting and fishing licenses to fund conservation initiatives.

Our first national wildlife conservation policy, drafted by Aldo Leopold and several colleagues, was completed in 1930. It asserted that effective wildlife protection and restoration would require an investment in the burgeoning science of wildlife management and the training of skilled professionals. Such an investment would require stable funding.

That funding was established in 1937 by the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, more commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act. The Act dedicated an existing 11 percent excise tax on rifles, shotguns, and ammunition for wildlife research and restoration, wildlife habitat improvement, the development of public access facilities, and hunter education. Subsequent amendments extended the measure to handguns and archery equipment. In 1950, the Dingell-Johnson Act instituted a parallel tax on fishing equipment to fund fisheries research and restoration, habitat work, the stocking of fish, and public access. It, too, has been amended and expanded over the decades. Together, the two programs have generated $15 billion since their inception.

The Situation Now

For three-quarters of a century, state fish and wildlife agencies have depended almost entirely on money generated by license sales and federal excise taxes. “Their bread and butter for funding are dedicated dollars from hunters and anglers,” said John Organ, Chief of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration for the Northeast Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But here in the Northeast, as elsewhere in the country, trouble is afoot.

Over the past century, the scope of state agencies’ duties has widened enormously. In addition to managing fish and game species, public lands, and fishing access facilities, they now review development proposals, assist towns and landowners with habitat work, and run educational programs, including youth conservation camps. They also conduct research on – and implement protections for – a wide array of species and habitats. For agencies with in-house law-enforcement divisions, responsibilities include enforcing not only hunting and fishing laws but also boating laws, off-road-vehicle laws, and general environmental regulations. They also conduct search-and-rescue missions and provide backup for police in non-wildlife law enforcement situations.

In theory, fish and wildlife agencies still operate on a user-pay, user-benefit model, where hunters and anglers pay for – and benefit from – the conservation, propagation, and management of game and fish. In reality, agencies’ diversified efforts now also serve wildlife watchers, paddlers who use boat-access areas, people who appreciate the fact that someone else picks up roadkill, homeowners who call for help when there’s a nuisance bear in the neighborhood, landowners who value stream-bank protection, town conservation commissions seeking technical assistance, teachers and students learning about conservation, farmers whose crops are damaged by hungry deer, and business owners dependent on wildlife-related recreation, among many others.

Changes have been especially swift in recent decades. “Responsibilities have increased tremendously over the last 30 or 40 years,” said Wayne MacCallum, Director of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “We are responsible for all fish and wildlife, essentially all wild living things, not just game animals and sport fish.” In large part, agencies’ expanded duties stem from concerns about threatened and endangered species and complex challenges including development, diseases, invasive species, and climate change.

Just as these responsibilities and challenges escalate, many agencies are hitting a fiscal wall. Like everyone else, they have been affected by the mounting costs of health care, energy, vehicle fuel, information technology, and other basics. “There is a whole suite of expenses that are out of our control,” said Patrick Berry, Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Agencies cannot simply pass these costs along. “The fundamental issue is that we’re dependent for our core funding on license sales,” said Glenn Normandeau, Executive Director of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. Like any business that raises prices, an agency that boosts license fees runs the risk of deterring buyers, so fee increases tend to be modest and infrequent.

Unlike businesses, however, agencies can only go so far in cutting services to reduce overhead, as many of their responsibilities are mandated. “When your licenses have a fixed price that typically doesn’t change for an extended period of time, but your costs rise,” Normandeau said, “it constantly puts the squeeze on your system.”

The problem is exacerbated by decades of static or declining license sales, noted William Hyatt, Chief of the Connecticut Bureau of Natural Resources. And sales are expected to drop further in the coming years. “A high percentage of our anglers and hunters are baby-boomers moving into retirement age,” Hyatt said. “In many states, they’ll become eligible for free licenses.”

The squeeze is also intensified by the fact that state revenue is needed to leverage federal funds. Though federal excise tax revenues have increased over the years – with a particular spike resulting from record firearms sales amidst the recent national debate over gun control – most states lack the matching funds required to capture all the federal money. The problem is especially acute in Rhode Island, where license revenues are low. There, the Division of Fish and Wildlife has had to be creative in coming up with non-cash match, relying heavily on donations of volunteer hours, land, property easements, and goods and services for specific projects.

With the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson programs paying $3 for every $1 the state provides, failing to come up with the match can have serious consequences. “If you don’t have 60 grand,” Normandeau observed, “it may not be that you have to lose one employee. It may be that you have to lose four employees.”

Even when an agency has funds available, it is not always free to spend them. Legislatures and budget offices typically hold the purse strings and often enact hiring freezes in tight fiscal times. New York instituted such a policy in 2008. Jason Kemper, Chairman of the state’s Conservation Fund Advisory Board, explained that the freeze – combined with early retirement incentives and a work-force reduction program – has led to the loss of 13 percent of staff in the Division of Fish, Wildlife, and Marine Resources (DFWMR) since 2009. Though the license-fee- financed Conservation Fund has a balance of $40 million, the freeze has prevented the DFWMR from filling vacant wildlife positions. Lance Robson, Chairman of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Management Board, noted that Region 7 has no deer biologist, despite the fact that Tompkins County is the epicenter of a massive deer overpopulation problem. “The vacancies are there and important work is going undone,” Robson said. “We have things we should be doing with this money.”

Kemper is concerned about domino effects as well. “The number of retirements we’re looking at in the next three to five years is pretty astronomical,” he said. To provide new staff with adequate training, there needs to be overlap with the people they will replace. “Unfortunately, that’s not happening.”

In Rhode Island, a similar hiring freeze has led the Division of Fish and Wildlife to rely on contractors to do more and more work. This solution has its drawbacks. One is that staff must spend time developing and overseeing contracts. Another is that contractors are not committed for the long term. “You don’t get stability,” explained Catherine Sparks, Assistant Director for Natural Resources at the Department of Environmental Management. “You don’t get the same buy-in to a program that you would by developing a core group of engaged staff.” Since 2000, the Division – not counting the Marine Fisheries Section – has lost 16 positions: more than a third of its small staff.

Shrinking Capacities

While demand for services is growing, most agencies’ capacities are static or shrinking. Some fish hatcheries have closed; most facilities are operating without needed repairs and upgrades. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission needs $50 million to repair 10 high-hazard dams and another $157 million to complete critical upgrades and repairs to other dams, hatcheries, and boat-launch facilities. Though this aging infrastructure is owned by and was originally built by the state, the commission is responsible for its upkeep. Fishing licenses, boat registrations, and federal funds can cover routine maintenance, but the commission must look to the legislature and governor whenever major upgrades or repairs are needed. Except as part of occasional state infrastructure initiatives, the large capital outlays required are not forthcoming, so crucial work goes undone.

Likewise, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department conducts nearly 160 search-and-rescue missions annually. The only funds earmarked for these missions come from a $1 fee from each boat, snowmobile, and all-terrain vehicle registration. These fees fall about $200,000 short of costs each year, forcing the department to eat away at the Fish and Game Fund and sacrifice positions, equipment, training, and other programs. Only 14 percent of missions are conducted on behalf of people who contribute to the department – hunters, anglers, boaters, snowmobilers, and ATV riders – while 57 percent are conducted on behalf of hikers and climbers. The other 29 percent include searches for missing children, crime victims, Alzheimer’s patients, and more. With public safety at stake and search-and-rescue missions mandated, the department cannot reduce its efforts simply because no one is paying. Yet the legislature has failed to establish alternative funding.

Such situations can be frustrating for hunters and anglers. Though proud of their contributions over the decades, they sometimes question the use of their dollars for purposes that have little to do with hunting, angling, or fish and wildlife. In New York, for instance, the license-fee-financed Conservation Fund has been paying for a higher and higher percentage of staff positions in recent years, both in the DFWMR and elsewhere in the Department of Environmental Conservation. At the same time, the DFWMR staff has been getting smaller and smaller.

“Why are the million-and-a-half license buyers carrying the entire burden,” asked Lance Robson, “when there are 19 million people in the state? We’ve got between 3 and 4 million nature watchers in New York. Don’t you think they ought to pick up some of this?” Robson pointed to a recent example: $194,000 used for control of invasive hydrilla in Cayuga Lake Inlet. “While I appreciate the environmental issues at stake,” Robson said, “the work, in all fairness, should have been funded through the General Fund or the Invasive Species account of the Environmental Protection Fund.”

Agency capacities are also stretched by the needs of threatened and endangered species. In Maine, animals such as the Canada lynx demand significant staff time. John Boland, the recently retired Director of the Bureau of Resource Management for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, predicts that these demands will grow: “We’ve got four or five species that are on the verge of being listed. When that happens, it creates a lot of work.”

The State Wildlife Grants (SWG) program, established by Congress in 2001 to “keep common species common,” is aimed at forestalling such difficult and costly work. But SWG yields only a small amount of revenue. In recent years, for example, Massachusetts and Vermont each collected $5-7 million annually in Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson funds combined, and only $700,000 in SWG money.

To qualify for SWG funding, a state must create a Wildlife Action Plan that lays out proactive strategies for conserving species and mitigating threats. According to John Organ of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, states in the Northeast have taken the initiative by assessing vulnerabilities on a regional scale and pooling SWG funds for projects that address shared needs. Still, “what’s lacking is some permanent overall funding to help implement those plans,” said Organ. “SWG funding won’t be adequate to achieve everything that’s outlined.”

More substantial funding was nearly established in 2001, the same year SWG began. The Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) would have guaranteed over $3 billion annually to conservation programs, drawing from federal oil and gas development revenue. Despite years of effort by a national conservation coalition, however, CARA never became law. On a more hopeful note, a comparable measure appears to be in the works. Though Organ said it was too early to discuss details, he mentioned that a new national effort is underway to bring major political players together to speak with one voice in favor of serious conservation funding.

Over the past century, fish and wildlife agencies have received little support from state coffers. But this is changing. New Hampshire Fish and Game currently receives 0.2 percent of its annual revenue from the General Fund, but by 2015 the state will likely be covering three percent of the department’s budget. In Maine, Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island, taxpayers supply five to eight percent. In Vermont, where such money was first appropriated in 2005, the General Fund will support 21 percent of the department’s $20 million budget in 2014. (Agencies in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania receive no General Fund support. The Pennsylvania Game Commission – by far the best-funded agency in the Northeast – is an outlier in that 20 percent of its annual $100-million revenue comes from Marcellus Shale gas-drilling leases on State Game Lands.)

General Fund appropriations can cover shortfalls today, but they leave agencies in a tenuous position, dependent on legislatures’ discretionary budgeting decisions from year to year. “What we really need,” said Vermont Commissioner Patrick Berry, “is a long-term, sustainable funding solution.”

The search for a broad-based funding solution is not new.

As early as 1967, Missouri’s Department of Conservation recognized that expenses would soon outstrip revenues and that public demand for services was increasing. A panel created to assess the health of the agency recommended that the department extend its programs to more non-game species, provide more diverse outdoor recreation opportunities, and seek a substantial funding increase. In 1976, the citizens of Missouri approved a constitutional amendment, adding one-eighth of a cent to the state sales tax and dedicating the proceeds to natural resources conservation. Today, Missouri has one of the best funded departments in the nation.

In the decades since, other states have implemented a variety of funding mechanisms, ranging from the creation of natural resource extraction funds to the sale of conservation license plates and wildlife-viewing passes. In 1992, for instance, Colorado voters dedicated half of state lottery proceeds to wildlife, outdoor recreation, and open space initiatives. In 1996, Arkansas followed Missouri’s lead with a one-eighth cent sales tax increase. In 1998, the Virginia legislature allocated a portion of existing sales tax on hunting, angling, and wildlife-watching equipment to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. And in 2008, Minnesota voters passed a constitutional amendment that increased the sales tax by three-eighths of a cent and dedicated the revenue to wildlife habitat, clean water, parks and trails, and arts and cultural heritage.

Here in the Northeast, attempts have been made to establish similar mechanisms. In 1990, for example, a commission formed by Governor Kunin of Vermont reported that there was “an immediate need to broaden the funding base.” Over the next decade, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department began receiving motorboat-registration money and small fractions of rooms-and-meals and gas taxes, but the additional revenue has been far from sufficient.

In 1995, following a campaign by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and the Maine Audubon Society, the state legislature created a new lottery ticket to pay for special conservation projects. (In 2012, the lottery provided 1.5 percent of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s revenue.) But in 2011, the Maine legislature fell two ballots short of letting voters decide whether to dedicate a fraction of state sales tax to search-and-rescue, habitat conservation, and endangered species restoration.

A Larger Vision

Whatever funding mechanisms are established, some wildlife professionals contend that fish and wildlife conservation needs to be transformed in ways that go beyond money.

Many believe we need to cultivate a stronger public conservation ethic. Such an ethic would include an understanding of how each of us is connected to the natural world, a commitment to placing conservation higher on the political agenda, and a deep appreciation for the value of fish, wildlife, and other species. “As numbers of engaged conservationists grow, they provide a political base for seeking solutions to conservation problems,” said Connecticut’s William Hyatt. “They exert forces and get things done from a whole variety of directions that assist us in our overall mission.”

John Organ thinks we also need to rebuild the foundation on which our agencies stand, starting with a recommitment to the idea that fish and wildlife, both game and non-game, are held in trust for all of us, not for a particular group. This principle has been a legal and philosophical cornerstone of American conservation for centuries. Yet state agencies have long been funded almost exclusively by hunters and anglers, who have wielded substantial influence. In a 2010 Journal of Wildlife Management article, Organ and four co-authors suggested that this influence has led to a “deeply rooted inconsistency between rhetoric and reality.”

Though an avid hunter himself, Organ is committed to a model that benefits all people and all species. “If funding is limited and comes from sources that have particular interests, it makes it difficult for state fish and wildlife agencies to implement broad-based conservation actions,” he said. “In order to fulfill the broader mandate, all citizens really have to contribute towards this.”

Emily Boedecker, Acting Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Vermont Chapter, agrees. “Hunters and anglers have been carrying this charge, and funding the mission for many, many years,” she said. But now, as we face challenges like climate change, which require enhanced capacities and long-term strategies, she thinks a broad-based revenue stream is vital. “It is work that benefits all of us.”

This was the holistic spirit Aldo Leopold and his colleagues had in mind when they drafted the 1930 policy that preceded the Pittman-Robertson Act: “No game program can command the good-will or funds necessary to success, without harmonious cooperation between sportsmen and other conservationists. To this end, sportsmen must recognize conservation as one integral whole, of which game restoration is only a part.”

Broad-based funding will mean expanding programs to appeal to the interests of diverse groups. Yet hunter and angler involvement and support will remain vital. “The challenge,” wrote Organ and his co-authors, “will be moving from a focus on priorities of a narrow user group toward those of the broader public without alienating stakeholders long invested in wildlife conservation.”

In New Hampshire, Normandeau thinks the time is ripe to make that move. Over the past decade, he has seen a shift away from old hardline attitudes about how the agency should be funded and where it should focus its efforts. “There’s more understanding that we just can’t survive on the existing paradigm,” he said. “More and more folks realize that we do a broad spectrum of things and we’re not just here to count the deer and set the seasons.”

Seen through the lens of history, the need for change comes as no surprise. Three centuries ago, citizens of the Northeast began protecting deer. Two centuries ago, we began conserving fisheries. One hundred and fifty years ago, we began establishing fish and game commissions, which we supported with state funds. When the need for revenue increased in the early 1900s, we turned to hunting and fishing licenses. When the need for a dedicated funding source to support wildlife conservation and restoration became clear in the 1930s, we joined the rest of the nation in turning to federal excise taxes.

Each of these steps has been an adaptation: a response to changing ecological, social, and fiscal circumstances. Today, we stand at another crossroad, again faced with new circumstances, again challenged to adapt.

Tovar Cerulli is the author of The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance. A speaker and communications consultant, he works to foster understanding of diverse perspectives on hunting, wildlife, and conservation.

What Wildlife Agencies Do

Agencies work to sustain healthy, diverse fish and wildlife populations. This work includes the propagation and management of game species, the conservation of non-game species, and the protection and restoration of rare, threatened, and endangered species.

Habitat Protection and Management

Though agencies work extensively on behalf of particular species – restoring extirpated native species, for example, and responding to specific disease outbreaks – fish and wildlife conservation is more broadly accomplished through the protection and management of habitat. Agencies work to prevent habitat degradation, loss, and fragmentation in a number of ways. These include:

  • conducting scientific field research on habitat health, from browse quality in deer winter-range to water quality in sturgeon habitat.
  • acquiring and managing land to promote habitat health and diversity.
  • acquiring and overseeing properties or conservation easements to protect rare species and unique habitats.
  • reviewing development proposals and collaborating with transportation planners to identify and protect significant habitats.
  • encouraging towns and municipalities to identify and protect natural resources and retain open space, including forestland, grassland, and agricultural land.
  • providing technical assistance to towns, municipalities, and private landowners.
  • providing and administering conservation incentives for landowners.
  • preventing and counteracting the importation and dispersal of invasive species, both terrestrial and aquatic.
  • coordinating regional conservation strategies with other state and federal agencies.

Education and Recreation

Agencies work to deepen our sense of connection to the natural world and strengthen our conservation ethic by educating people about fish, wildlife, habitats, and conservation, and providing a range of outdoor recreation opportunities including hunting, fishing, boating, wildlife-watching, and hiking. These efforts include:

  • providing conservation-education programs for children and adults, including students and teachers.
  • producing state wildlife magazines and other publications.
  • organizing events to introduce young people to outdoor activities including fishing.
  • organizing and administering hunter-education courses, taught by volunteer instructors.
  • acquiring and managing public land for recreational uses.
  • acquiring, building, and maintaining access facilities including public boat launches.
  • providing guidance to the public on nuisance wildlife issues.
  • overseeing the licensing and training of nuisance-wildlife control officers.

Regulation, Enforcement, and Population Management

Agencies oversee hunting, fishing, trapping, and other human interactions with fish, wildlife, and their habitats. Whether working in the agency itself or a separate division, various state employees – from conservation officers and wardens to biologists and administrators – are involved in:

  • conducting scientific studies and monitoring fish and wildlife populations.
  • conducting socioeconomic studies of anglers, commercial fishermen, and hunters.
  • establishing guidelines and quotas for hunting, fishing, and trapping.
  • preventing and investigating the illegal taking and selling of wildlife.
  • stocking fish and birds to provide enhanced angling and hunting opportunities.
  • enforcing hunting, fishing, and trapping laws.
  • issuing hunting, fishing, and trapping licenses.
  • conducting search-and-rescue operations.
  • investigating pollution and other environmental-law infractions.
  • enforcing boating, snowmobile, and all-terrain-vehicle regulations.
  • resolving conflicts between humans and wild species.
  • removing large animals from roadsides after vehicle collisions.
  • providing backup for police in non-wildlife law enforcement situations.

Agency Funding Sources

CT Bureau of Natural Resources (not including the Forestry Division) - $15 million
License revenues (angler, hunter, permits)                          50%
Federal grants                                                                 42%
General Fund                                                                    8%
Other revenues                                                                  0%

ME Dept of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife - $37 million
License revenues (angler, hunter, permits)                          43%
Federal grants                                                                 26%  
General Fund                                                                    5%
Other revenues                                                                26%

MA Division of Fisheries and Wildlife - $16 million
License revenues (angler, hunter, permits)                          46%
Federal grants                                                                 37%
General Fund                                                                    0%
Other revenues                                                                17%

NH Fish & Game Dept - $24 million
License revenues (angler, hunter, permits)                          36%
Federal grants                                                                 36%
General Fund                                                                    0%
Other revenues                                                                28%

RI Division of Fish and Wildlife (not including the Marine Fisheries Section) - $5.6 million
License revenues (angler, hunter, permits)                          13%
Federal grants                                                                 81%
General Fund                                                                    6%
Other revenues                                                                  0%

VT Dept of Fish and Wildlife - $19 million
License revenues (angler, hunter, permits)                          32%
Federal grants                                                                 39%
General Fund                                                                  10%
Other revenues                                                                19%


  • Total revenues and source percentages vary from year to year. These are figures from the recent past: FY2012, FY2011, or an average of recent years. Totals and percentages do not match all figures in the article, some of which are current or projected (FY2013-15).
  • New York’s Division of Fish, Wildlife, and Marine Resources did not provide funding-source data for this article.
  • LAW ENFORCEMENT: In VT and NH, these agencies include in-house law enforcement divisions. In CT, ME, RI, and MA, law enforcement is housed in separate agencies.
  • MARINE FISHERIES: For CT and NH, funding for marine-fisheries work is included above. It is not included for other states. (In RI, the Division does marine work, but we were provided with numbers that excluded the Marine Section. In ME and MA, marine work is done by separate agencies.)

This article was supported by Northern Woodlands magazine’s Research and Reporting Fund, established by generous donors.

  1. Rev. Jackie Goodrich
    Aug 17, 2015

    Why not charge every person in America one dollar per year for our woodlands and animals? Even urban areas should pay, the homes they live in destroyed woodlands. Plus we all add to pollution. Lets keep our woodlands and animals supported! There are many beautiful parks and preserves we can go to and enjoy. Lets all SUPPORT this, so we can continue to enjoy these preserves and endangered animals. Its time to stop making species extinct! We have lost enough! I would love to see a dodo bird, or thylacine! So many gone! STOP NOW and give one dollar per year to help our woodlands and animals, so we can always see what our states looked like before we took over! Please watch the movie “Soylent Green!” You will cry if you have a heart, but you will WAKE UP! Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson(older movie 1970’s?) See how horrible life will be if we we don’t help!
    Reverend Jackie’s Wolfpack

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