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Column: Our wildlife resources — it’s the public’s turn

eric aldrich

eric aldrich

You may have heard about the financial woes of the N.H. Fish and Game Department, the agency that manages our public wildlife resources. The key word being “public.”

It’s the state agency that manages New Hampshire’s wildlife, from white-tailed deer, wild turkey and moose to salamanders, little brown bats and bald eagles. All of the state’s wildlife, and all of it is a public resource, whether the object of a bullet, a hook or pair of binoculars.

It’s the agency that connects us - the public - to the great outdoors. It coordinates volunteer hunter education instructors who keep hunting a remarkably safe activity. It oversees backcountry search and rescues. It is the champion for connecting the outdoors with children, our next generation of conservationists. All great things for the public good.

But for years, the agency has been in financial trouble. And the situation has been getting worse. Now, if the legislature doesn’t step in and help, the fund that fuels the department’s operation will be depleted within three years. That kind of gloomy uncertainty is no way to run an agency with a $28 million annual budget and 184 dedicated employees.

What does the agency want to help fix this problem? For the short-term, $550,000 for the FY 2014 budget and $745,000 from the state’s general funds, including $200,000 a year for search and rescue operations. For the long-term, Fish and Game wants the state to establish a stable funding source to supplement its existing mix of funds from federal aid and other sources.

This is all reasonable, responsible and timely, and here’s why.

But first, a quick quiz: How much of the department’s budget currently comes from the state’s general fund (as in, public tax dollars)?

A) 100 percent

B) 75 percent

C) 25 percent

D) 0.2 percent

If you guessed 0.2 percent, you got it. Wow! Two-tenths of one percent? No way!

That’s right. For a $27.7 million budget, that’s only $50,000. And that goes specifically to the department’s Nongame and Endangered Species Program. Nothing else. Some money from boat registration fees helps create public access to our lakes and rivers. And some money from boat, snowmobile and off-highway recreational vehicles (OHRV) supports search and rescue operations (right, those users aren’t often the expensive, high-profile rescues).

The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation

Then where does Fish and Game get its funding? To answer that question, it’s worth stepping back a little bit. Way back, because it’s easy to take things for granted.

White-tailed deer, beaver, moose, wild turkey, passenger pigeons - these are all species native to New Hampshire, once abundant and all suffered terrible declines in the 1800s, before hunting was regulated. The worst casualty was the passenger pigeon, which went extinct in 1914. Its needless end was one shameful legacy of unregulated market hunting.

By the late-1800s and early 1900s, conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot were raising the alarm about the devastation of our wildlife, our wilderness and our forests. One of the many breakthroughs to arise out of this great awakening was the North American model of wildlife conservation.

This great American success story is largely forgotten, especially by the policy-makers who really need to know it. Among our model’s tenets is that wildlife is a public resource, held in common ownership by the state for the benefit of all people. Another tenet is that our public wildlife is not a commodity that can be bought and sold on the private market, thus eliminating great pressure from market hunting. Other tenets: Managing wildlife is the domain of science, not politics; and states should manage wildlife populations, including game species, the harvests of which should be regulated with careful controls.

One of the shining moments in this now-rare moment of clarity in American governance was the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937. It’s a tax. A federal excise tax on the purchase of ammunition and firearms, which is pooled to fund states’ management of game species like white-tailed deer, black bear, moose and wild turkey. The act is responsible for the reintroduction of wild turkey to New Hampshire, the return and sound management of the other game species and the regulation of safe hunting. A similar act pools an excise tax on fishing equipment for managing fisheries.

About one-third of the department’s budget comes from federal aid. Another 29 percent or so comes from hunting and fishing license fees. The rest are from a bunch of small fees here and there, including OHRVs and boat registrations.

It’s Not Right

All of that funding (with the exception of 0.2 percent from the general fund for nongame species) comes from user fees, mostly hunters and anglers like me.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that’s not right. The public - the state - needs to pony up its share.

I’m not alone in this line of thinking. Fish and Game has gone out on a limb to urge support for measures before the N.H. Legislature that would provide short-term funding of $550,000 in FY 2014 and $745,000 in FY ‘15.

While the North American model of wildlife conservation has worked really well for generations, times are changing. Fewer people are hunting. The public has greater demands for the services of fish and wildlife agencies and a decreasing understanding and tolerance of wildlife, especially when critters encroach into their backyards that sit alongside good habitats.

Listen Up, N.H. Legislature

And while New Hampshire is among a growing number of states seeking general fund dollars for wildlife, it ranks near the bottom of the list for states that provide public support.

All of this begs the supposition that wildlife is a public resource. Wildlife brings wide-ranging public benefits. Wildlife-associated recreation contributed $556 million to New Hampshire’s economy in 2011 according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Of this, hunters and anglers spent $275 million, while wildlife-watchers spent $281 million.

A closer look shows that in 2011, 56,000 people hunted in New Hampshire, 228,000 fished and a whopping 630,000 participated in wildlife-watching activities. When it comes to funding, something is clearly out of whack here.

Of course, those are all just numbers. We all know that we all benefit from healthy, well-managed fish and wildlife in New Hampshire. We need not just the game species, but also the bats (which are now imperiled), the birds migrating across continents and all of the little critters that make the world work.

Wildlife is a public resource. It’s the public’s turn to pony up.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

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