Tapping the Third-Rail: Wildlife Watching and State Wildlife Funding Reform
By Christopher Spatz
In their October 2018 Rewilding Earth article on Wildlife Governance Reform, Kirk Robinson and Dave Parsons note that funding deficits for state wildlife programs from a decline in hunting and fishing revenues – these programs’ primary funding source — have been met with retrenchment. Rather than creating funding from the much larger constituency of non-consumptive wildlife interests, state wildlife agencies are trying to create new opportunities for hunting and fishing recruitment. The agencies continue to deny those wildlife interests a voice in state wildlife management. It’s a scenario that has played out largely unchanged for decades, as hunting and fishing popularity has been cyclical, while few substantive supplemental, non-game funding sources have been created even when the hand-wringing over wildlife funding deficits resumes.
Since the Outdoor Recreation Industry lobby (Patagonia, Black Diamond, REI, et al.), successfully fought off the 2000 “backpack tax,” non-consumptive wildlife interests have reached a virtual nadir in creating alternative funding sources. The backpack tax — an excise tax on outdoor gear to fund 12,000 at-risk species through the newly created federal Teaming With Wildlife, website unavailable, — was similar to the federal Pittman-Robertson/Dingell-Johnson Acts (PRDJ) on hunting and fishing gear that provides one-third of all U.S. dedicated wildlife funding. The other two-thirds comes from hunting/fishing license sales. The most successful alternatives have been tiny, 1/8 – 3/8 of 1% general sales taxes in Missouri and Arkansas that spread the burden and give all citizens an equal say – theoretically – in how wildlife is managed, while dedicating critical funding for non-game species. State gear excise taxes, wildlife license plates and wildlife stamps, tax return check-offs, cigarette taxes, real estate transfer fees, percentages from state lotteries, and fees from resource extraction dedicated to wildlife have also met with some success. Fifteen of these state funding initiatives have been analyzed in this extensive University of Michigan study. The Michigan study found just one attempt — a failed effort in Alaska to create a wildlife watching tourism pass – to tap the more lucrative, third branch of wildlife recreation revenue: wildlife watching.
Every five years, the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) produces the National Survey on Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Related Recreation. The most recent survey from 2016 found that 86 million US citizens pursued some form of wildlife watching annually, generating $75.9 billion in spending. This compares favorably to 35.8 million anglers and 11.5 million hunters, generating $46.1 for fishing and $25.6 billion for hunting. Though hunting-related expenditures dropped from $36 billion in 2011 to $25.6 billion in 2016, fishing expenditures increased from $45 billion to $46.1 billion. What those numbers don’t tell is that handgun and handgun ammo sales — merchandise unrelated to consumptive recreation taxed for wildlife funding — accounted for half of total gun sales during the Obama years (the “Obama Bump”), offsetting hunting-related deficits. Consequently, PRDJ funding went unchanged from 2014 – 2017 at $1.1 billion annually. If the backpack tax had been instituted in 2000, if would have generated $6.4 billion in 2014 for those 12,000 at-risk species and their habitats, dwarfing the PRDJ funding. Teaming With Wildlife currently receives about $63 million annually in appropriated funding.
In 2016, TWW controversially created a Blue Ribbon Panel of sportsmen, businessmen, academics, and executives from Toyota, Shell, and Hess to develop a supplemental wildlife funding source. Non-consumptive wildlife interests were not represented on the panel. The panel recommended a bill to tap oil/gas drilling on federal lands similar to one proposed and defeated on off-shore drilling in 2000 after the backpack tax went down. HR 4647, The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, would redirect existing hydrofracking royalties and fees of $1.3 billion annually for TWW. Introduced in December of 2017 with 116 cosponsors, the bill has not moved beyond hearings by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands.
In the spirit of tapping existing revenues, puma biologist/ecologist Dr. John Laundre and I, as executives of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, in 2014 created an option from state wildlife watching expenditures to fund non-game and at-risk species. Our idea was to reward wildlife for the work wildlife watching does in the economy. Using state revenue numbers from the 2011 USFWS Wildlife Recreation Survey (which are not included in the 2016 survey), we found that our home state of New York had the highest wildlife watching numbers in the nation: $10.6 billion, $4.1 billion of it in-state, producing $328 million in state taxes, or $3.2% of New York State’s $10.9 billion sales tax for 2011. By piggy-backing on the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s NY Watchable Wildlife program, our goal was to market wildlife watching spending as the incentive to boost wildlife re-investment. Utterly lost on the Outdoor Recreation lobby, marketing wildlife re-investment is a highly successful tactic well established in “sportsmen pay for wildlife” promotion to increase “game” management revenues.
Our formula, which I am modifying for the purposes of this article, takes a percentage of existing state taxes on wildlife watching revenues to reinvest them into non-game and at-risk species. New York State currently receives about $12 million annually for wildlife from all sources, including PRDJ. To create a $12 million match, New York would take 3.6% of its $328 million in state wildlife watching tax revenues, or about 4 cents from every $100 spent on wildlife-related sightseeing in New York State.
Under this scenario, just as Pittman-Robertson first redirected its gear excise tax from the U.S. Treasury to the Department of the Interior, there is no new tax to collect; the wildlife watching sales percentage is simply gleaned and dedicated from the total state sales tax. And according to the NYS DEC , each $1 invested in wildlife and wildlife habitat returns $7 in jobs and business to the state’s economy. This Association of Wildlife Agencies economic study of PRDJ’s excise taxes produced an $11–$21 return for every $1 spent – an 1100% return on investment. Based on these studies, that $12 million in wildlife reinvestment would return $84-$252 million in revenues, or $6-$20 million in additional state sales tax: good for retailers, good for Discover NY’s Nature attractions, and good for state coffers.
Our original formula also included taking a percentage of state hunting and fishing revenues. Point being that reinvesting some percentage of the revenues produced by wildlife watching and also fishing and hunting for a dedicated state wildlife fund is viable for every state with a sales tax wishing to supplement non-game and at-risk wildlife. Two experts long in the wildlife funding trenches, Mark Humphries from TWW and John Organ from the USFWS, gave our formula — and its novel proposal to target state wildlife watching expenditures — the thumbs up.
Critics of state wildlife agency management, especially for non-game and predator management, have long argued against giving the agencies any more money, lest they siphon it to game programs. The answer to this valid concern is legislation dedicating the wildlife watching funds to non-game and at-risk species: the funds would be earmarked by law, protecting them from use for hunting and fishing programs.
In the final meeting of the advisory committee for 2015 New York State wildlife action plans, the TWW program that every decade assesses the status of those 12,000 at-risk species, creating intervention plans on their behalf, John and I pitched our funding formula. In the room were DEC wildlife biologists and administrators, state Audubon chapter representatives, Wildlife Conservation Society reps, hunting, fishing and trapping reps, and land conservation advocates. In a nutshell, TWW’s 6400 partner organizations are the very broad-based coalition non-consumptive wildlife advocates have long dreamed of, providing Cougar Rewilding Foundation exceptional access to state wildlife agencies, colleagues and their constituents over a nearly three-year process. As the discussion came around to creating funding sources, John and I presented our wildlife watching funding formula, including the revenues and taxes it could generate for funding the state wildlife action plans (SWAPs); and we offered to lead a campaign with the assembled to create legislation for this funding source. The response: crickets.
I often wonder if our proposal would have received more traction had reps from Audubon or Ducks Unlimited made the funding pitch, rather than the guys who drafted the controversial wolf and puma action plans. Wolf and puma are extirpated species that qualified for listing but were kept off the final NY State wildlife action plan list. Nevertheless, a presentation I made last April at the Northeast State Fish and Wildlife Agencies conference was well received; and we continue trying to gain publicity among agencies and state legislators for funding wildlife re-investment from wildlife watching.
For wildlife advocates seeking access to state agencies to effect change, Cougar Rewilding Foundation recommends joining your state’s 2025 wildlife action plan committee. While New York kept wolves and pumas off their final SWAP list, our collaboration with Vermont Fish and Wildlife was successful, as Vermont was the only state in the Northeast that listed action plans for wolf and puma recolonization. Changing dedicated wildlife funding is a long haul; but until we broaden the base of financial support for wildlife conservation, our efforts to restore puma and wolf and other top carnivores will be uphill struggles.
Christopher Spatz, inspired by Dave Foreman announcing the birth of Earth First! on the Today Show in the early ’80s, procured a copy of Eco Defense and began his peripatetic pursuits as an eco-gadfly. Yanking surveying stakes, canvassing for Greenpeace in Boston, performing for Trenton, NJ’s Klark Kent eco-street theater troupe, directing the Gunks’ Climbers Coalition, and advocating for puma recovery as the president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation were some of his ventures. He lives and writes from the Shawangunks in southern New York State.