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Idaho Department of Fish and Game Hunts for New Revenue

Idaho Wildlife Summit searches for new funding sources

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Ross Thompson looked like a guy who was there for a reason, his big flat hat immediately giving away the fact that he was from Owyhee County. He marched over to Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore and asked why the hell he was wasting his time. The Idaho Wildlife Summit had definitely attracted a few with a bit of ire.

Up to that point, the summit, which ran Aug. 24-26, had been a showcase of speeches on conservation and ethics. A lot of "we need to work together on our problems" but not a lot of problem solving.

What is the problem? In a word: money. The department is funded in large part by "consumptive users" of wildlife: hunters, fishermen and other outdoor enthusiasts--57 percent of Fish and Game's budget comes from resident and nonresident tag sales, as well as taxes on sporting goods. The remaining amounts are mostly from land leases to companies like Idaho Power.

In a recent statewide poll conducted for the department, 93 percent of Idahoans said they value the right to hunt. But only 11 percent of the citizens hold hunting licenses, year to year. How to hold up nearly universal support with only one-tenth participation is a major issue.

The problem gets worse because almost all Idahoans expect the "second paycheck" of seeing wildlife in our state. Few can imagine driving through the backwoods and not seeing a deer. But only a few who are not consumptive users contribute to the department's budget.

Currently, the only way the department raises money outside of its normal channels is through license plates and the Blue Bird Box on Idaho tax returns. The BBB is an elective checkbox that allows Idahoans to donate money from their state tax returns. In 2011, the Blue Bird Box raised $33,000. In comparison, the 2013 departmental budget is $92 million.

This is the dilemma facing the department: How does it balance the demands of an increasingly urban and growing population while relying on a static, if not shrinking, customer base?

Cue the Idaho Wildlife Summit.

No silver bullet was presented at the summit--no grand new idea to save all wildlife while keeping conservationists, hunters and fishermen happy.

What Idaho can do is promote itself as a hunting destination to out-of-state hunters.

"We have seen a direct increase in license sales when we have used forms of online marketing. ... It is a whole new direction for us," Moore said.

"We see a direct correlation with marketing money and nonresident tag sales," he said. "Remember, one out-of-state tag is worth, fiscally, about 10 to 12 in-state tags."

A resident Idaho elk tag costs about $31, while it costs an out-of-state hunter $416.

The department relies more on nonresident hunters for money than its own population base--19 percent of revenue is from in-state hunters while 22 percent is from out-of-state hunters. The more hunters and anglers from outside Idaho, the more wildlife Idahoans can enjoy.

Times are tough at Fish and Game. In each of the past four years, the department has seen a decrease in the total sales volume of out-of-state deer and elk tags. From an all-time high in 2006 of about 13,000 tags sold to just less than 8,000 in 2011, the department has lost about 40 percent of that revenue.

"We got used to selling out all of our nonresident tags, but that model has clearly changed, and we need to adapt to it," said Moore. "Idaho used to have units that would sell out on quota tags within the first few days. Now we have leftover tags for those units."

According to Moore, three things happened at the same time that have drastically affected nonresident revenue. First, wolves had a marked impact on the elk herds. A reduction in numbers means a reduction in hunt quality and thus fewer tags are bought. Second, the economic tumult. Third was Fish and Game's decision to raise prices for nonresidents by about 20 percent. That combination wreaked havoc on the department's budget.

"The main reason that we can absorb any of this loss to revenue is on the backs of our employees," Moore said. "We have a statewide wage freeze in effect."

One option for fixing the department's woes presented at the summit was for closer collaboration with nongovernmental agencies, like the Nature Conservancy.

Hunters and anglers shift in their seats at the idea of a conservation group partnership.

Toni Hardesty, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in Idaho, was quick to address the crowd's concerns. She explained that 70 percent of Nature Conservancy staff in Idaho either hunts or fishes. She also addressed the misconception that conservation means lack of access.

In her speech, she opened with a story about why her grandparents never went fishing together. One fished for trout, the other fished for catfish. Thus, they could not fish together.

Her point was that the type of fish sought is clearly an inconsequential divide but one that kept both sides apart while fishing. She used this as an analogy for sportsmen and nature conservancy folks.

For the most part, sportsmen and conservationists have more common ground than either care to admit. Both want to protect habitat and see animals flourish into the future. Both also want to see a sustainable Idaho Fish and Game, and both realize that the current consumptive-use model is unsustainable.

During a break, Thompson and I ran into each other in the restroom at the Riverside Hotel. We had just sat through an impassioned speech by renowned Canadian conservationist and hunter Shane Mahoney. According to him, Teddy Roosevelt was the last great genius in America.

Thompson looked at me and said, "Now that we are done with our history lesson, do you think that we can get onto solving some of the problems?"

For me, it was one of those times in life that I wished I could find the profound words at the right moment. Instead, I just shrugged and said, "hope so."

But the best part about reflection is having the time for a witty comeback. What I would have liked to have said was, "If we forget our history, we are bound to repeat it. I do not want to see any more animals go the way of the buffalo."

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