When Fred Koontz was a member of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, he would sometimes joke that they’d been assigned to the wrong department.
“I used to joke that we ought to be part of the Agriculture Department,” he told Stateline. “What we do is produce animals for harvest, we plant pheasants and fish, we’re producing crops.”
This contention–that state wildlife departments exist primarily to produce game species and ensure successful hunter harvest–isn’t limited to disillusioned former wildlife commissioners (Koontz called the commission a “politicized quagmire” and resigned in 2021).
As we covered earlier this year, a nationwide campaign is underway to divorce hunters from wildlife policy. At the heart of this movement is the assumption that state wildlife agencies aren’t doing enough for non-game species. Hunters, they say, have called the shots for far too long; if we want to save nongame animals and preserve biodiversity, it’s time for a major change.
This is why current Washington Wildlife Commissioner Melanie Rowland said at a commission meeting earlier this year that hunters “should be nervous.”
“I understand that the hunters and fishers could be getting nervous, and I think they should be getting nervous because they have been pretty much in complete control for a very long time,” she said.
“A Hollow Talking Point”
It is true that fish and game departments spend a great deal of time and resources managing game species. Many are funded largely by hunting and fishing license sales, and some are under a mandate to maximize hunting and fishing opportunities for the state’s residents.
But it is reductive and disingenuous to characterize wildlife departments as focused solely on game species. Habitat improvement benefits all wildlife, of course, but biologists are also working to help animals no one will harvest, fish no one will catch, and plants no one will forage.
“That mantra that state agencies are just providing targets for hunters…people that say that immediately make it clear that they don’t know what state agencies do,” Jim Heffelfinger told MeatEater. Heffelfinger is the Wildlife Science Coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department and a MeatEater contributor. “It’s a biased mantra. It’s a hollow talking point that can’t be supported,” he said.
To counter the myth that wildlife agencies only care about game animals, Heffelfinger helped organize a symposium at this year’s Wildlife Society Annual Conference titled, “State Fish and Wildlife Agency Conservation Efforts: More than Bucks, Bulls, and Bullets.”
The symposium’s goal was to tell a positive story about the great work wildlife agencies are doing that has no direct connection to hunting or fishing. Eight presenters spoke about some of these projects, which included monarch butterfly restoration, unhunted habitat improvement, as well as wolf, black-footed ferret, and California condor recovery.
“State agencies are getting more diverse in their human workforce, working more and more on diverse species, and listening to the public more,” Heffelfinger said. “We’re agencies that conserve all native species for all people. It just happens that hunting and fishing and boating has funded a great deal of that conservation that benefits all species, not just game species.”
Monarchs, Wolves, and Water
Symposium attendees were treated to a smorgasbord of fascinating conservation projects from around the country.
Bill Van Pelt of the Western Association of Wildlife Agencies talked about how the Arizona Game and Fish Department uses funds from Pittman-Robertson, state income tax, and lottery ticket sales to research and recover black-footed ferrets, California condors, and Mexican wolves.
Julia Smith of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife covered her state’s efforts to recover gray wolves despite never being under any federal recovery requirements. Under that state plan, which includes protocols for managing livestock conflicts, the wolf population has grown by an average of 23% per year since 2008.
Danny Summers of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources told symposium attendees about the Watershed Restoration Initiative (WRI). This partnership between the Utah Department of Natural Resources and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources focuses on improving watershed health and biological diversity, water quality and yield, and opportunities for sustainable uses of natural resources. Habitat improvement aids game species, of course, but the goal of the WRI is not to increase any specific population.
Wildlife biologist Amanda Barth outlined what states are doing to conserve western Monarch butterflies and other pollinators. She explained how seven state wildlife agencies–Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington–formed the Western Monarch Working Group in 2017 to respond to the growing threat to the Monarch butterfly population. This working group developed a conservation plan that included population tracking and goals, conservation strategies for eight target audiences, and a 50-year adaptive management plan.
Not all states are able to manage native insects in the same way, so the working group is also pushing states to allow insects on the list of “species of greatest concern” in their wildlife action plans. When Barth joined the working group four years ago, most member states didn’t have insects among their species of greatest concern. Now, thanks in part to their efforts, six out of the seven states will have identified insect pollinators on those lists.
“Actions that benefit insect pollinators also benefit measurable recovery of other imperiled wildlife and help states meet their adaptability goals,” Barth explained. “We can effectively make a difference if we work together and take action now.”
Evolution, Not Revolution
Some might argue that this and similar work being done by state agencies isn’t enough to counter the threats of biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, and climate change. To address these concerns, organizations like Wildlife For All advocate for a revolution in wildlife management and an overhaul of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.
Because these voices are often the loudest, hunters and anglers are hesitant to consider any changes to how wildlife departments operate. Heffelfinger thinks this is a mistake.
“When people talk about changing the model, sometimes people get defensive. I do sometimes, depending on who it’s coming from,” Heffelfinger said. “But we have to recognize that the model has to evolve with society. We need hunters to be supportive of continued refinement and improvement with how to conserve wildlife in North America.”
This “evolution not revolution” mindset doesn’t seek to throw out the North American Model or diminish the role of hunters in crafting wildlife policy. But it does acknowledge, for instance, that some departments need more funding to conserve a state’s wild animals and places. That funding, Heffelfinger says, might have to come from sources other than hunting and fishing license sales.
There is disagreement in the hunting community about whether it’s a good idea to add funding sources to wildlife departments, but it’s worth noting that many wildlife agencies already receive a significant amount of money from the non-hunting public.
Jason Summers from the Missouri Department of Conservation also presented at the “More than Bucks, Bulls, and Bullets” symposium. He explained that all the way back in 1976, Missouri residents approved an initiative that sent one-eighth of 1% of the state’s sales tax to the Missouri Department of Conservation. This funding stream became a cornerstone of the Missouri model of conservation, and has allowed the department to reach out to the general public to gain broad support for conservation efforts. While Missouri has its share of wildlife controversies, it’s hard to argue that this non-hunting funding stream has made the agency anti-hunting.
That might not be the case in every state. Some folks are eager to use any excuse to marginalize hunters. But regardless of whether agencies can tap into alternative funding streams, they’ll use that money to protect and conserve all species–whether they’re hunted or not.