CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Gov. Matt Mead supports using money from the general fund on the Wyoming Game and Fish Department as a long-term solution to its financial woes.
Game and Fish has suffered from budget cuts. Expenses are rising. The department hasn’t increased hunting, fishing and boating fees since 2008, and the Legislature rejected attempts to increase fees in each of the past two legislative sessions.
Historically, most of the Game and Fish budget has come from hunters and anglers. The general fund is the state’s checking account for day-to-day operations.
Mead, in an interview Wednesday with the Star-Tribune, said everyone must support the Game and Fish Department.
“Game and Fish unquestionably is a benefit to sportsmen, but it’s much broader than that,” he said. “It’s a benefit to industry. It’s a benefit to tourism. It’s a benefit to all our quality of life. Even if you never hunt, never fish, never hike, never take photographs, the wildlife and habitat we have in Wyoming is a boon for all of us.”
Mead, a Republican wrapping up his first term in office and seeking re-election, has said he is trying to strike a balance between economic development and environmental protection.
The Game and Fish Department has experts who can do habitat analysis, environmental analysis and wildlife habitat mapping. Those are tools that can protect the environment and assist in the development of energy and other industry, Mead’s spokesman, Renny MacKay, said Thursday.
In December, Mead sent the Legislature a budget proposal for the next two years that requested money for the Game and Fish Department from the general fund.
Ultimately, the Legislature provided additional funds to the Game and Fish Department, said John Kennedy, the department’s deputy director.
The Game and Fish Department started receiving money from the general fund in 2005, Kennedy said. General fund money goes to the aquatic invasive species program, wolf and sage grouse management, the veterinary services program and the sensitive nongame species program, which includes animals such as owls.
The budget passed by the Legislature provides the department $2.5 million for the next two budget years, a period that begins July 1.
“We really appreciate the level of general fund support we get for those programs,” Kennedy said, because that frees the department to use money from hunting, fishing and boating fees on other projects.
In addition to boosting funding for the five programs in the general fund, the Legislature passed a bill last session allowing the Game and Fish Commission to formally seek funding for employee health insurance and the grizzly program from the general fund.
Mead doesn’t want the department to be weakened because of low funding, he said.
“We want an agency that is robust in its knowledge and robust in its activities,” he said. “And you can’t stop and start. In other words, if you have a program to address habitat for endangered species, you can’t say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do that for a couple years and then we’re going to stop. And then maybe we’ll start again or not.’
"You have to have a trend line that has some consistency in order to address those complex issues. And so we need a Game and Fish that is strong in terms of its funding, and that funding shouldn’t just be on the backs of sportsmen. It is something that all of us, all citizens, whether sportsmen or not, should support. ”
Steve Kilpatrick, executive director of the Lander-based sportsmen group Wyoming Wildlife Federation, is concerned about the department’s independence if parts of its funding come from the Legislature.
Since the late 1930s, states have funded their wildlife resources programs with hunting, fishing and boating fees to keep state politics out of wildlife management, he said.
Wyoming is unique because it has world-class resources and a small population. The state must be open to alternative sources of Game and Fish Department funding, Kilpatrick said.
“The general fund is one way to go,” he said. “But we always worry about the general fund. The more you tap into it, the more strings are attached.”
Other alternatives to boost department funding could be taxing tour groups that make money taking people to view wildlife on horses or in rivers.
Automatic increases to the fees, tied to inflation, are another option that wouldn’t require the department to make its case before lawmakers each year.
“Even if we had a small, half-of-a-percent state income tax, maybe we could divide that up not just for wildlife, but for parks, ag and wildlife," Kilpatrick said. "Maybe there’s something we could do there.”