A broader model for funding fish, wildlife agencies

Posted April 10, 2009, at 11:12 p.m.

The same old tired arguments have been raging for decades around whose responsibility it is to take care of Maine’s natural resources. In other words, who should pay? Meanwhile, our natural resources, our heritage and our beautiful home face enormous challenges to survive.

Sportsmen and sportswomen have carried the burden of funding the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife through license fees and registrations. But, like it or not, times have changed. The mission of fish and wildlife agencies has changed as they faced new challenges and responsibilities. Of necessity, they had to evolve along with the rest of society.

Let me be clear: It is no longer about fish and game and sportsmen’s rights.

It is not about, and has never been about, mismanagement of the resources. The 300 people who work for the department have dedicated their lives to the conservation of all that we hold dear. Management positions in the department are a fraction of what exists in other agencies, and even the private sector. DIF&W has been lean, out of necessity, since its beginnings in the late 1800s. It has never been a top-heavy organization, but without doubt, there are many ways that it can and must improve.

It is now about diminished habitat, fragmentation from development, ecosystem management, and all wildlife, not just game. The mission of DIF&W has grown because of state and federal mandates, changes in public awareness, participation in outdoor recreational activities, and local politics.

Historically, our management efforts began out of necessity from unchecked hunting pressure.

Over the years, most of our game and nongame management has been encouraged and supported by those sportsmen who saw the need to protect these valuable resources in perpetuity. With all of this change, the fish and game model of funding fish and wildlife agencies is no longer adequate because the number of hunters has declined and the number of anglers has risen only slightly. Consequently the sale of licenses has not kept up with the exponential rise in the cost of doing business.

Meanwhile, the activities of outdoor recreational activists now far outnumber the activities of hunters, trappers and anglers. This larger and diverse majority is calling attention to the need for protecting Maine’s natural resources. According to the 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife National Survey, there are 801,000 people in Maine who are involved in the following outdoor activities: wildlife watching, hiking, canoeing and kayaking, riding snowmobiles and ATVs, camping and white-water rafting, and they contribute more than $1.3 billion annually to Maine’s economy.

By contrast, the same U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey reported that there are 526,000 hunters, trappers and anglers in our state, and they contribute approximately $500 million annually to our economy.

Obviously, there are far more people in Maine who enjoy the outdoors than sportsmen who hunt, trap and fish. In terms of politics, their numbers are reflected in the people they elect to the State House to determine public policy and make laws. This has created a tension and a divide that has resulted in adversarial relationships and pitched battles over secondary issues.

The solution to fully funding the protection and preservation of our natural resources will happen when all of us accept the responsibilities of stewardship and make the hard decision to safeguard the only home we have.

DIF&W’s proposed budget for 2010-11 will be in the neighborhood of $37 million. When one considers that the total impact on Maine’s economy from the major industries the department oversees exceeds $2.4 billion annually, it is imperative to adequately fund the stewardship role of DIF&W in protecting and preserving the economic lifeblood of this state, which affects every one of us.

Our natural resources are the engine and foundation of our economy, and protecting and preserving them is the most pressing stewardship challenge of our times. It is really all about the natural resources.

Regis Tremblay is director of public information and education for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. View a nine-minute video titled “A Wicked Good Deal For Maine” at www.mefishwildlife.com.

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