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Saving Oregon Wildlife and The Great Outdoors – Resolving the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Funding Crisis

Problem: The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) is charged “to protect and enhance Oregon’s fish and wildlife and their habitats for use and enjoyment by present and future generations.” However, like many similar agencies around the country ODFW faces a severe and worsening shortage of resources to carry out conservation initiatives that benefit non-game species, and an unsustainable dependence on revenues from hunting and fishing license sales. Despite strong support for fish and wildlife conservation among the Oregon public, in the 1990s and early 2000s the legislature slashed general fund support for ODFW, creating an unsustainable dependence on hunting and fishing license sales and related fees.

Public participation in hunting and fishing, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of population, has steadily declined in Oregon over the last 20 years. This led to a catch-22 of increasing license fees, decreasing license sales and declining budgets. Hunters and anglers are frustrated when their license fees are diverted to fund conservation programs that do not favor game species. Non-hunting and fishing wildlife advocates are equally frustrated, as they feel the agency is falling short in pursuing its broader conservation mission and gives too little attention to Oregon’s non-game species and non-consumptive stakeholders.

Now the issue is coming to a head with the agency facing the largest funding shortfall in its history. Solution: The State of Oregon should create an Oregon Wildlife Conservation Fund (and/or modify existing non-game conservation programs) with funds used exclusively for the conservation of non-game species and their habitat. Initial monies for this fund could be derived from a variety of sources. Sales of a special Oregon endangered species license plate could generate some revenues, while increasing public awareness of the funding need and increasing support for the agencies broad conservation mission. Other sources of revenue for this fund should be identified and secured including revisiting recent proposals for a tariff on birdseed or outdoor equipment, mitigation fees, developer fees, lottery dollars, gas tax funds, or fees for agency services. Because of its non-game focus, funding from federal and private conservation grants could also be available.

To truly address the problem in the long term, the legislature must fundamentally reform ODFW’s budget structure and – to the extent possible – decouple funding from declining revenue streams. General Fund dollars could be directed to this non-game species fund to support ODFW in fulfilling its broad conservation mission and honoring the values of Oregonians. As ODFW receives more General Fund dollars, it is imperative that they be spent on conservation and other programs that can not access license revenues. To increase support for the agency, build trust among non-hunting and fishing Oregonians, and raise broader public awareness for the agency, this fund must be subject to clear sideboards and mechanisms for accountability in how it is used and subject to oversight by a citizen’s advisory committee made up of non-game species conservation advocates, scientists, and institutions.

Background: Despite the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife’s (ODFW) broad mission and the diverse public it serves, the agency’s funding is based on an outdated model. Despite the long-term decline of participation in hunting and fishing, ODFW remains largely dependent on license revenues and related fees. Because of this, ODFW has historically prioritized consumptive opportunities and game species over its broader conservation mission, leading many non-consumptive users of wildlife (who make up the majority of Oregon’s population) to believe ODFW does not consider their views or work to conserve the resources they value. Worse, the agency’s dependence on license fees hamstrings its ability to act upon and implement the Oregon Conservation Strategy, and to manage non-game fish and wildlife species (which are the overwhelming majority of fish and wildlife species in the state).

A more robust and effective non-game species and habitat conservation program would allow ODFW to play a more effective role in conserving and recovering rare or declining fish and wildlife, a critical need that could help Oregon avoid the need for future federal Endangered Species Act listings and recover currently listed species.

History: The agency’s current budget model (and chronic budget shortfalls) and disconnect from the broad public are largely the result of changes to the agency in the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 1980s the agency adopted a policy not to use dollars generated from hunting and fishing to support non-game wildlife conservation. At the time, non-game programs were well-funded by the general funds, a voluntary tax checkoff, lottery dollars, and federal grants. However, over the last 20 years these monies have declined dramatically, resulting in deep cuts in conservation programs. In 1993 the agency had a proactive habitat conservation division separate from wildlife diversity program that consisted of 14 positions, including 9 field staff, with a management perspective that benefited both game and non-game fish and wildlife.

However, a series of moves from the legislature and Governor in the 1990s and early 2000s resulted in a number of changes that weakened conservation activities, including:
•Dissolving the Habitat Conservation Division
•Relocating the agency headquarters to Salem and replacing the Director in part due to pressure from anti-conservation interests
•Pressuring subsequent Directors to narrow the agency’s work, vision, and scope to reduce its emphasis on fish and wildlife conservation Former ODFW staff and agency watchers report that the changes resulted in serious declines in employeemorale, and a shift of agency culture away from proactive conservation and toward a culture of self-preservation. Efforts that were perceived as politically controversial, like habitat conservation, science-based restoration of native biodiversity, or law enforcement activities related to habitat destruction were decreased while “safer” priorities like maximizing hunting and fishing opportunities were prioritized. By 2011, only seven staff nominally worked on non-game conservation issues. However some of those positions still focus on game species or do not actually work to conserve wildlife, but rather kill animals in response to damage claims. Though the agency has developed a laudable vision in its “Oregon Conservation Strategy”, the lack of funding and decline in conservation culture within the agency has meant that the program has largely not been implemented.

Unbalanced Funding

Despite the broad mission, only 4% of ODFW’s current budget will be spent on non-game and habitat conservation. That’s in line with the revenue-side where approximately two-thirds of funds come directly from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and other funding sources closely tied to consumptive user groups. The Pittman-Robertson Act (1937) and Dingell Johnson Act (1950) provide the agency with additional federal funds, but those dollars are also focused on hunting and fishing related activities.

Oregonians generally believe they already support their state’s broader conservation mission through their tax dollars. However less than 5% of ODFW’s projected revenue comes from the General Fund. Lottery dollars account for just over 1% of the agency’s revenue. As a percentage of the overall state budget, ODFW receives only 0.04% of all state expenditures and, by one measure, only 1.25% of natural resource expenditures. The numbers simply don’t match up with the values and self-identity of Oregonians, or the growing body of evidence pointing to the role that environmental conservation plays in Oregon’s thriving tourism and outdoor recreation economy. This meager funding also ignores the value of proactive conservation work by ODFW in addressing and reversing wildlife declines before they reach a crisis stage and spark federal or state Endangered Species Act listings. Decline of fishing and hunting dollars with the overwhelming majority of ODFW’s funding coming from consumptive users – primarily hunters and anglers – the fiscal health of the agency is directly tied to trends in those user groups.

The agency in turn focuses disproportionately on the concerns of those stakeholders – only 4% of expenditures are directed towards conservation and habitat. As it has across the country, interest in hunting and fishing in Oregon has experienced a sustained decline. Decades of intense efforts by hunting and fishing groups and wildlife agencies to increase youth participation in those activities have failed to stem the decline. Even as the state’s population has increased dramatically, the participation decline has been in both absolute numbers and rates of participation. Consumptive users tend to be older and are more highly concentrated in rural areas; however the decline has been seen in nearly every county in the state.

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