At the same time, he says, the cost of doing business is going up and the demands on his agency are growing. Climate change and development are threatening more species. The public wants protections for animals that it used to not care about. The combination is creating a crunch.
The National Wildlife Federation, a nonprofit conservation organization, says that current funding levels for national wildlife conservation are “less than 5 percent of what is necessary.”
In Wisconsin, Lobner says, they’ve had to cut 16 positions in their program because of budget shortfalls over the last four years – people who would have been managing wildlife and habitat. Open positions are staying vacant longer. Programs and services are being scaled back.
In a report to the Wisconsin legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance, the DNR listed several ongoing or potential reductions due to insufficient funds, including fewer game warden patrols, less habitat management, fewer fish surveys and 2,000 acres of shallow wetlands that are being left unmanaged.
Wetlands that, as Lobner points out, don’t just serve as wildlife habitat but also help to purify the state’s drinking water.
“These are resources that the public wants,” Lobner says. “We’ve been hearing they want to see waterfowl, they want to see deer, they want to see bear, whatever the species it is. They want those resources at their disposal.”
The question is: Are they willing to pay for them?
HUNTING FOR MORE FUNDING
Public support for hunting remains high across the country, even with fewer people participating. Public support for wildlife conservation is even higher.
Nearly 90 percent of Wisconsin residents – Republicans, Democrats and Independents – agree that money should be invested in protecting land, water and wildlife even when the state’s budget is tight, according to a poll commissioned by the state’s chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
Nationally, 74 percent of Americans believe the country should “do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” according to the Pew Research Center.
But in most cases outside of hunting and fishing, that’s not being translated into dollars.
Philanthropy and nonprofits have certainly stepped up to try and fill the void, bringing in money for habitat purchases and management. A few states have passed sales taxes to help fund conservation. Others have tapped lottery ticket sales or started selling specialty license plates.
Even Congress is looking for a solution. Legislation, introduced late last year, would redirect revenues from energy and mineral development on federal lands to state wildlife programs. The proposal has bipartisan support, but similar efforts to secure wider funding have failed in the past.
So in most cases, state wildlife agencies like Wisconsin’s are going back to the hand that feeds them, doubling down on hunters with programs to retain old hunters, reactivate those who have quit the sport and to recruit new hunters.
For the latter, state wildlife agencies are increasingly looking for new hunters that don’t fit the traditional mold by advertising in urban areas, opening stands at farmers markets and staffing community events. In Wisconsin, they’re offering free classes on college campuses, teaching hunter’s safety and hands on butchering clinics, with the goal of capitalizing on the locavore movement and a renewed interest in wild meat.
A group of hunters gather in southern Wisconsin for a late season antler-less deer hunt. CREDIT: NATE ROTT
These efforts are having success, Warnke says, particularly in recruiting women to the sport.
“But when you look overall, our small group isn’t going to change the trend,” says Jim Wipperfurth, a volunteer for Wisconsin’s DNR who leads recruitment hunts. “There’s just so many factors involved, it’s hard to just change it.”
This pains Wipperfurth and other hunters to say. It’s not just the loss of a sport or a revenue source they’re trying to stop, but the loss of a tradition and a connection to the natural world, Wipperfurth says.
“Who goes and sits in the woods all day except hunters?” Wipperfurth says. “If hunting didn’t exist, who’d know that the squirrel population is down, that a windstorm knocked all these trees down – who’d know all of that stuff? Because we’re the ones out here seeing all of it.”
The latest numbers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that 86 million Americans participated in wildlife watching in 2016. That was a 20 percent increase from just five years previous. The number of people enjoying outdoor recreation is increasing as well.
“We need to find ways for the rest of those folks, who are canoeing and cross country skiing and biking and going to the park to contribute as well,” Huston says.
There have been efforts to tax outdoor equipment like sleeping bags, tents and binoculars. Some in the wildlife management world joke about an “REI Tax,” a reference to the chic outdoor retailer.
Those efforts have failed though, in large part because of opposition from the outdoor industry, which argues that it already pays billions of dollars in taxes through import tariffs. That revenue should be used to adequately fund conservation, says the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group that represents retailers like Patagonia and The North Face.
The arguments about funding for conservation can quickly grow divisive. Hunters are quick to write off other outdoor recreationists as hippies and “free riders.” Wildlife advocates are quick to paint hunters as hillbillies, clinging to an outdated tradition. But many people are in the middle.
“Wildlife conservation has been at its strongest when hunters and non-hunters are allied together for wildlife,” says Adena Rissman, an associate professor of forest and wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin.
The passage of the Lacey Act, the nation’s first – and perhaps most powerful – wildlife protection law is a good example, Rissman says. It prohibits the trade of wildlife, fish and plants that have been taken illegally.
Neal Deunk photographs geese at a wildlife refuge north of Madison, Wis. CREDIT: NATE ROTT
That act, Rissman says, was galvanized not just by hunters, but by affluent women’s groups that had grown concerned about the millinery trade’s impact on bird populations. Feathered hats were in fashion in the late 19th century and hunters were killing millions of birds annually, wiping out entire colonies, to feed the demand. Sport hunters, angry about the sorry state of their quarry, were equally concerned. Together, they helped push lawmakers to a legislative solution.
A similar collaborative effort is needed to address the funding issues of today, Rissman says, and she believes that other wildlife lovers are willing to contribute.
About 20 miles north of Madison, at a quiet, open wildlife sanctuary, Neal Deunk takes pictures of four lonely geese floating on a tiny patch of open water in an otherwise frozen pond. His telephoto lens juts out from the open driver’s side window of his car.
Deunk knows the challenges facing wildlife refuges like this, with the decline in hunting and shrinking revenues. He says he’d like to see lawmakers allocate more general tax money to address the situation. But he also thinks it would be prudent to get other wildlife enthusiasts to contribute more.
“It’s difficult to license birdwatchers or hikers and so forth in the same way that hunting and fishing can be regulated,” he says, watching as a few of the geese take flight. Asked if he’d be willing to pay a license-fee to view wildlife like this, he pauses. “I think I would,” he says.
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