It’s hard for most of us to imagine a time when hunting and fishing were completely unregulated. Setting up wildlife management agencies to implement science-based management and habitat protection was really the first step in the wildlife conservation movement at the start of the 20th century.
With strong support from hunters and anglers, wildlife management was set up to be funded by hunting and fishing licenses. This “user-pays” model, in which hunters and anglers paid license fees to support conservation of the resources they loved, was a truly remarkable innovation in paying for government services – and the last century has shown that it is also a wild success.
Today, we enjoy an abundance of fish and wildlife that was unimaginable a century ago. These resources support the best hunting, fishing, and wildlife-watching in the world, generating billions of dollars a year in economic activity and supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs.
At the same time, the challenges facing wildlife and habitat are getting tougher. As our communities grow, we’re taking up more and more of the lands and waters that wildlife depend on for survival. The spread of invasive species and diseases poses a constant threat to wildlife populations. Working with private landowners to protect habitat is essential, but it takes time. Wildlife conservation is getting more and more expensive, but funding continues to depend only on hunters and anglers buying annual licenses.
Perhaps most important, we’re now realizing that all Montanans benefit from our state’s fish and wildlife, but many of them never purchase a hunting or fishing license. Wildlife management shouldn’t be paid for only by sportsmen. Everyone who benefits from our fish and wildlife should help shoulder the burden. That means we need to broaden how we pay for wildlife management beyond just hunting and fishing licenses.
A few states have already expanded conservation funding beyond just hunters and anglers. In Missouri and Arkansas, wildlife management has been funded for decades primarily from a dedicated portion of their state sales taxes. A similar effort is underway in Iowa. Other states have found ways to supplement license dollars with lottery revenue, real estate taxes, and other sources of funding that more of the public can pay into.
The experiences in Arkansas and Missouri also show us that moving away from a sole dependence on license revenue has strengthened, not weakened, scientific wildlife management and hunting heritage. When all citizens chip in for conservation, hunting and fishing grow in importance as valued traditions and proven wildlife management tools – and not just revenue sources.
In considering ways to broaden how we pay for wildlife management, we are standing on the shoulders of giants – the first generation of hunters and anglers who, a century ago, invented the conservation movement. Today, we have an opportunity to carry on that legacy. By involving all Montanans in paying for wildlife conservation, we can ensure that our wildlife resources and hunting and fishing traditions endure for future generations.
Dave Chadwick is the Executive Director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org