How much money do state governments need? If Kentucky is any indication, they need just a little more. The state legislature decided to help itself to the $8 million in the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund, which purchases or permanently protects land throughout the state, including land set aside for public hunting.
Ironically, the state took in a record $9.5 billion in revenue in 2014. It certainly wasn’t an unprecedented move, and it’s far from the most egregious attack on conservation funding. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich took $18 million, including more than $9 million in dedicated conservation funds, from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in 2008.
The money went into the state’s General Fund. The Texas state legislature also “borrowed” $200 million over five years from Texas Parks and Wildlife to help balance the state budget. The money is supposed to be dedicated to Texas state parks, many of which are open to hunting.
“That goes on all the time,” says Wildlife Management Institute President and former Secretary of Kansas Wildlife and Parks Steve Williams. “Legislatures usually back off when they understand the implications, but they always find a way to take money from conservation and parks.”
Legislators aren’t just picking the pockets of hunters and anglers. In some cases, they are wielding their power by attempting to strip fish and game departments of their autonomy. Hunters suffer the consequences.
Montana legislator Dave Hagstrom (R-Billings) introduced a bill that would have removed Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’s ability to spend $12.5 million on access and habitat programs for at least two years. Hagstrom and other legislators were upset over the wildlife agency’s purchase of the 4,500-acre Milk River Ranch in 2012.
Money, Money, M0ney
The money came from the Habitat Montana program, which is funded entirely by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and is dedicated to specific uses. The program included $849,000 for upland birds, $460,000 for bighorn sheep habitat, and about $350,000 for fishing access acquisition.
“There are some people who just don’t want the state buying more land,” Hagstrom was quoted as saying, “and we want to think about it. I think this will give us the chance to work for the next two years on removing that statutory authority for the state to just continue to accumulate money to buy more land.”
“Whether or not the state wildlife agency made a bad decision should be between the agency and its constituents. Legislators need to rely on professionals and stay out of making these kinds of decisions.”
The purchase of the Milk Ranch was also criticized by sportsmen’s groups, many of whom thought it was not a wise use of limited resources. Local ranchers opposed the sale, as well. Many stopped allowing access to their own land in protest. But Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Director of Communication Mark Holyoak says Hagstrom’s bill set a dangerous precedent.
“All I can figure is he [Hagstrom] had an axe to grind,” says Holyoak. “Whether or not the state wildlife agency made a bad decision should be between the agency and its constituents. Legislators need to rely on professionals and stay out of making these kinds of decisions.”
Hagstrom and his supporters backed down after various sportsmen’s groups, including the RMEF, voiced strong opposition to his bill. However, he did get the final say. Instead of turning all financial decisions back to MFWP, the agency can only purchase easements. They cannot actually buy land.
“Easements can permanently protect the habitat, but sometimes, the outright purchase of the land is a better decision,” says Holyoak. “State wildlife departments need all the tools in the toolbox, and it shouldn’t be up to legislators to make decisions like this on behalf of the agency.”
That also happens regularly, says Williams. A legislator introduced a bill during his tenure in Kansas that would have given the lawmakers the authority to set the number of doe permits. Williams pleaded his case, but a couple of representatives wouldn’t budge. “I finally said, fine. You take the phone calls and the responsibility that goes with managing our deer herd,” he recalls. “That was the end of it.”
It wasn’t that easy in Idaho, where the legislature decided it would essentially put the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in its place by blocking the department’s ability to buy a 10,400-acre ranch that would have become a public hunting area. The move was in retaliation to a letter penned by the Fish and Game Commission. It all started when the Fish and Game Commission proposed a resident license fee increase—the first in 10 years.
Hike or Halt
The legislature initially supported the license hike. So did sportsmen. That is, until two state legislators decided to tack on a few riders to the bill authorizing the increase. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle and Senator Bert Brackett wanted to force IDFG to allow landowners to sell big-game tags, which are given to them as a show of appreciation for their stewardship. Currently, landowners can give tags away, but they can’t sell them.
Moyle and Brackett also wanted the wildlife agency to allocate a certain number of tags for an open lottery. They also wanted IDFG to adopt a bonus point system for big-game tags. All three measures were tied to the license fee increase, effectively forcing the department to go along with the three amendments or forgo any license hike. The agency chose the latter.
Idaho Fish and Game Commission Chairman Mark Doerr says it was the right thing to do. He points to Utah, where landowners were given the ability to sell tags in the mid-1990s. Some deer and elk licenses in coveted units now sell for thousands of dollars.
“Once tags become a commodity, it becomes ‘pay-to-play,’” says Doerr. “Landowners start closing their land to the public, and hunters are either forced to pay big money or hunt public land, which will then become more crowded. We don’t want to see that happen in Idaho. Our sportsmen are pretty happy with the way things are now. They were pretty opposed to the amendments.”
Those same sportsmen were predictably outraged when they learned of the backroom politics taking place within the legislature. So were members of the Fish and Game Commission, who penned an open letter to the legislature protesting the license fee bill amendments. The letter also asked lawmakers to leave management decisions to the IDFG and the sportsmen they represent.
Legislators took offense. They blocked IDFG from buying Rock Creek Ranch, even though no state funds would have been used. Worse, the legislature had actually approved the purchase a few days prior to the letter’s publication in state newspapers.
“This was the first time in commission history that the legislature tried to rescind our authority,” says Doerr. “Tens of thousands of sportsmen weighed in on this, and the bill ended up getting killed. However, we also pulled our request for a license fee increase, so Idaho’s sportsmen and our agency ended up losing in the end.”
Doerr thinks the legislature was in some ways testing the boundaries of its reach. “I just hope legislators paid attention to Idaho’s sportsmen. We’ve never had our authority questioned like this before, but I won’t be surprised if it happens again.”