State Fish & Wildlife Agencies

Table of Contents

The Average Fish and Wildlife Agency

The average state fish & wildlife agency sells 760,000 fishing licenses and 630,000 hunting licenses each year. To promote wildlife habitat, it manages several hundred thousand acres of land, promotes cooperative agreements with private landowners, and may have some regulatory authority over the water quality in streams and lakes. The agency often also has authority over boating, boat registrations, and boat landings.

The average agency's budget is more than $40 million per year, more than half of which comes from license sales or other user fees. Nearly a quarter of the agency's funding comes from federal grants--mostly from excise taxes on sporting equipment--while less than 10 percent comes from state general funds. Much of the rest--nearly 10 percent--comes from other state tax receipts that are dedicated to the agency's use.

Despite their long history of self-funding, things aren't looking rosy for fish & wildlife agencies right now. On one hand, the number of hunters in most states has been declining, leading to shortfalls of what was once the prime source of revenue. On the other hand, environmentalists have pressured state agencies to devote more attention and dollars to non-game species.

As a result, most fish & wildlife agencies are on the prowl for new sources of funding. A few--such as Missouri's Department of Conservation (page 14)--have found it. Most--such as Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (page 11)--are still looking.

History of State Fish & Wildlife

In U.S. conservation history, the stories of parks and forests are largely federal, with states playing as bit players. But for fish & wildlife the states have been the stars, with the federal government in a mere supporting role--at least until recently, when Congress asserted authority over endangered species.

Yet the endangered species recovery story of the century has been that of the state wildlife agencies. At the beginning of the century, four of the six U.S. varieties of elk had been extirpated, while Rocky Mountain elk, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep were all near extinction. The latter species were saved not by protecting them from hunting, as some wanted to do, but by creating state agencies that had an incentive to promote the species in order to get hunting revenue.

A legal tradition dating back thousands of years governed wildlife by a "rule of capture"--meaning that they are owned by no one unless killed or captured. Under U.S. common law, wildlife are owned by the people, and the states, rather than federal or local governments, have jurisdiction over their use. Few states began exercising this authority until late in the nineteenth century, and the result was a classic tragedy of the commons.

As the U.S. law was interpreted, an individual couldn't own a living bison, elk, or deer. But individuals could shoot them and, once dead, keep them for any use they desired. Many species were so abundant that they were widely hunted and their meat sold commercially. This was misnamed "market hunting"--misnamed because true markets were not working.

For a market to truly work, there has to be ownership, which means that people have to be able to legally defend their ownership in a good. The law bestowed on hunters ownership in the meat, but not in living animals. If someone gathered a herd of elk or a flock of passenger pigeons to breed, they would have no recourse against anyone else shooting their breeding stock. So the plains bison and elk were wiped out and replaced with cattle and sheep, which people could own and defend whether the animals were living or dead.

In the nineteenth century, people who fished for a living were called "commercial fishermen," while people who hunted for a living were called "market hunters." Perhaps this subtle distinction was what led sports hunters to call for bans on commercial hunting, while sports fishers only sought regulation (including bans on specific practices such as fishwheels) of commercial fishing. Pressed by sports hunters, Arkansas passed the first law banning all commercial hunting of waterfowl in 1875. Similar laws were quickly passed in Florida and other states.

Massachusetts created the first state game department in 1865. New Hampshire and California followed in 1878. With populations of many major game species at very low levels, Michigan put a ten-year moratorium on elk hunting in 1879 and Wyoming did the same for bison in 1890.

Efforts to ban or regulate commercial hunting accelerated in 1887 when Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell started the Boone and Crockett Club, which soon became the most powerful conservation organization in the country. The club is not as well known today, partly because it restricts its membership to 100 people, but those 100 people tend to be highly influential.

Bans on commercial hunting were difficult to enforce when hunters could take their wares across state lines. In 1900, Boone and Crockett Club member and Iowa Congressman John Lacey convinced Congress to pass a federal law prohibiting interstate shipping of wildlife taken in violation of a state game law. This effectively put commercial hunters out of business.

While the Lacey Act was important for wildlife, the law that has had the greatest influence on wildlife agencies is the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937. By the 1930s, virtually every state had wildlife agencies and enforcement of game laws. But wildlife advocates, including the newly formed National Wildlife Federation, wanted better protection for wildlife habitat.

One idea was a federal wildlife stamp whose proceeds would go for habitat acquisition and conservation. When this was proposed in the 1920s, however, it was fought by people who opposed all hunting, sports as well as commercial. The anti-hunters successfully killed the idea of a general hunting stamp and delayed the duck stamp for more than a decade.

One of the people involved in the stamp debate was Carl Shoemaker, who had directed Oregon's Fish & Game Commission and then worked as an investigator for a U.S. Senate wildlife committee. In 1936, he helped to create the National Wildlife Federation, which he used to promote the idea of a new fund for wildlife. Just as it taxed liquor and cigarettes, the federal government had long had a 10 percent tax on guns and ammunition. Shoemaker wanted to divert this money from the federal general fund to a specific fund for wildlife.

Shoemaker convinced Senator Key Pittman, of Nevada, who chaired the committee on which Shoemaker worked, to support the proposal. He also asked Willis Robertson, a representative from Virginia, to sponsor it in the House.

Robertson, who had chaired on his state's game & fish commission, realized that the law would tempt state legislatures to fund wildlife programs mainly with federal dollars, while they could siphon off license revenues for other purposes. He said he would sponsor the bill if it required any states receiving federal habitat funds to dedicate all license revenues to fish & wildlife.

Up to that point, the states often treated fish & wildlife as a source of revenue to fund other state programs. Robertson's addition effectively turned state fish & wildlife agencies from for-profit organizations to nonprofit organizations.

The law specified that the taxes on firearms and ammunition go to the U.S. Biological Survey (later the Fish & Wildlife Service) for distribution to the states. The Survey could keep up to 8 percent for administration, while half of the rest would go to the states based on their land area and the other half would be divided among the states based on their number of licensed hunters.

The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, or Pittman-Robertson Act as it is more commonly known, was passed by Congress and signed by the president within eleven weeks of its introduction. States quickly adjusted their budgeting processes to qualify for the funds. Recognizing that they couldn't raid fish & wildlife revenues for other programs, most states also decided not to give fish & wildlife agencies any general funds. Some even incorporated this into their constitutions.

Pittman-Robertson has had a major influence on state fish & wildlife programs in many ways. For example, a percentage of Pittman-Robertson funds is dedicated to hunter education. This is why most fish & wildlife agencies publish colorful, glossy magazines with names like Montana Wildlife or Louisiana Conservation--75 percent of the magazine is funded by federal grants.

In 1950, a similar law, the Dingell-Johnson Act, was passed taxing fishing equipment and dedicating the funds to fish habitat. Since the federal agency in charge had never kept more than 5 percent of Pittman-Robertson funds for administration, Dingell-Johnson cut the administrative limit to 6 percent.

Hunters and firearms manufacturers are usually portrayed as strongly supporting this user-fee like tax. But it must be remembered that they were already paying the tax before 1937. All that Pittman-Robertson did is divert it to their own use. In 1970, when wildlife advocates proposed a similar tax on archery equipment, bow-and-arrow manufacturers opposed and successfully delayed it for several years.

The Fish & Wildlife Service takes Robertson's provision regarding state use of license revenues seriously. In 1994, it charged that the state of Kansas had spent both hunting license revenues and Dingell-Johnson funds on "ineligible activities" (probably parks, which are in the same department as wildlife). It ordered the state to reimburse the state's wildlife agency nearly $6 million or face a cutoff in federal grants. The legislature is not expected to act on this until 1996, leaving the state agency in a tenuous position.

In the past two decades, fish & wildlife agencies have been troubled by two more general trends. First, the number of hunting and fishing licenses sold--the agencies' major source of funds--has been declining, at least relative to the total population. At the same time, those people who don't hunt or fish have demanded that the agencies' devote more resources to non-game species--species that bring little or no income to the agencies.

According to the Fish & Wildlife Service surveys, the number of hunters in the U.S. peaked at 17.1 million in 1975 and has declined or, at best, remained stagnant ever since. As a percentage of the population, the number has declined from 11.2 percent in 1960 to 8.3 percent in 1991. The total number of people buying hunting licenses declined by 8 percent from 1975 to 1994.

Fishing has done a little better, with the number of people buying licenses increasing from 13 million in 1950 to more than 30 million today. But as a percentage of the population, sports fishing has been stuck around 24 percent since 1975. In some states, fishing has declined: In Oregon the percentage of the population buying fishing licenses has fallen from 24 percent in 1977 to 19 percent in 1993.

Urbanization is a major reason for these declines. While the nation was largely urbanized by 1950, people who had moved from the country to the city still pursued hunting, fishing, and other rural pastimes. Their children, however, prefer hiking and other "nonconsumptive" uses if they do any outdoor recreation at all.

Fish & Wildlife Service surveys found that 15 percent of all ruralites hunt, but they are joined by only 4 percent of people in urban areas of 1 million or more. Fishing is more broadly popular, with a quarter of all ruralites and 19 percent of people in urban areas of 1 million or more. Both activities are more popular among people who earn $30,000 to $50,000 per year than among either wealthier or poorer people. Hunting and fishing are also regional, being most popular in the Midwest and Rocky Mountains and least popular in the Northeast and Pacific Coast states.

But the strongest differences by far are between urban and rural areas. Both the trend away from hunting and the demand for non-game habitat reflects the urban environmental "ethic" that (as shown in the Spring, 1995, issue of Different Drummer) has had such an influence on the Forest Service.

Some fish & wildlife agencies have dealt with this new ethic gracefully, finding new sources of funding for non-game as well as game management. Others haven't done as well, either because the agencies were biased towards game or because they couldn't get legislative approval for new funding sources. As a result, many agencies today say that they face a major fiscal crisis.

Present Day Funding of Fish & Wildlife Agencies

To prevent or resolve such a crisis, fish & wildlife agencies have three major options. They can increase existing sources of revenue, for example by raising license fees. They can convince their legislatures to appropriate more general funds. Or they can convince voters or the legislature to divert an existing tax or impose a new one dedicated to fish & wildlife conservation.

User Fees

Raising user fees is more difficult for an agency whose budget depends on the legislature elected by its users than for a business whose budget depends on its profits. Proposals to increase hunting fees often meet resistance, particularly if hunters suspect that their money will be used for non-game wildlife. Few agencies can raise license fees without legislative approval, and in at least one state a recent initiative may forbid higher license fees without a vote of the people.

A dozen or more states--mostly in the Southeast--increase revenue from resident hunters and anglers by selling "lifetime" hunting or fishing licenses at five to twenty times the cost of an annual license. The income from such licenses is placed in an endowment fund whose interest is dedicated to habitat protection.

A more popular alternative is to stick it to the out-of-state hunter and angler: Most states charge stiff premiums for out-of-state users. In Idaho, for example, the 12 percent of hunters who are nonresidents pay 58 percent of the license fees. (In the case of anglers, the figures are 39 percent of nonresidents pay 58 percent of Idaho fishing license fees.)

In effect, the out-of-state users are subsidizing the in-state ones. In some cases, however, high fees may actually reduce total revenue as they discourage most potential hunters or anglers--which may be bad for the agency's budget but serve the political purposes of those who wish to reserve fish & wildlife for residents.

States lucky enough to have unusual species such as bighorn sheep or trophy-sized elk can charge an especially huge premium to nonresident hunters. Since the number of tags for such species are limited, they are usually reserved mainly for resident hunters. But a half dozen or so western states auction off one or more "governor's tags" for bighorn sheep or other species per year, earning tens of thousands of dollars per tag. Similarly, Alaska raffles one bison tag per year.

At least ten states raise additional funds by asking people to voluntarily buy "conservation stamps." Several states sell wildlife artwork, and New Hampshire raffles a custom-made commemorative rifle or shotgun each year.

Agencies whose wildlife areas have timber, mineral, or grazing values usually get to keep the revenues they earn from such resources. At least four states also charge entrance fees or annual fees to recreationists using state wildlife areas. Finally, a few states have begun to charge a subscription fee for their magazines to cover the 25 percent not paid for by Pittman-Robertson funds.

General Funds

Fish & wildlife agencies get minimal general funds from their legislatures. Agencies in about half the states get no general funds at all; half of the rest get under 5 percent of their budgets in general funds, mainly for overhead or special projects.

Oil-rich Alaska is an exception: Nearly half of the budget for its Fish & Game Department comes from the state general fund. A few other agencies get up to about 15 percent of their budgets from general funds, but in most cases these agencies have non-fish & wildlife functions--such as parks, forests, boating, or pollution control--which may be what the general funds are going for. In general, with most states facing budget shortages and voters resisting tax increases, few fish & wildlife agencies expect to get any more general funding than they already have.

Dedicated Funds or Taxes

The real action in fish & wildlife agencies today is in dedicated funds derived from special taxes or user fees. A number of such funds have been tried by various states: Although these taxes have greatly boosted wildlife programs in many states, proposals for similar taxes in other states are often poorly received. To fund their growing non-game programs, many state wildlife agencies have seen their proposals for taxes on sporting goods, real estate sales, or other activities rejected. The taxes that have been best received are the "voluntary" ones, such as the income tax checkoffs, license places, and, to a lesser degree, lotteries.

To help states pay for non-game programs, the International Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies has proposed a federal non-game wildlife fund similar to Pittman-Robertson or Dingell-Johnson. Revenues would come from an excise tax on outdoor recreation equipment, such as tents, sleeping bags, and binoculars. These would be distributed to the states to promote habitat diversity. This has met with severe opposition from recreation equipment manufacturers for two reasons.

First, it is a new tax, not a diversion of an existing tax like Pittman-Robertson. Second, very little recreation equipment is primarily used for non-game-related activities. Where everyone who buys a fishing rod and tackle uses it to fish, many people who buy sleeping bags or binoculars will rarely have anything to do with wildlife. For these reasons, the proposal hasn't gone anywhere at the national or, in most states, local level.

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