Autumn can seem distant if you're a hunter with a license burning a hole in your pocket and more than a month left until rifle season.

Big-game rifle hunters must bide their time, sighting in their scopes or scouting their locations while waiting for Oct. 26. Meanwhile, bird hunters and archers are already out in the fields, enduring summer temperatures as they make the best of the time they have.

Such has been the fall ritual for many Montanans.

But just as fall now has fewer cool days, it also has fewer hunters.

That doesn't bode well for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, which depends on sportsmen's dollars.

FWP is reassessing its finances to decide how much to increase license fees to manage wildlife through another decade. The dwindling number of sportsmen may require FWP to turn to a new funding pool: the nongame user.

Wildlife watchers and photographers are a growing segment of the population that outnumbers sportsmen 5-to-1 nationwide. In 2011, wildlife watchers spent more than $400 million on viewing equipment and travel in Montana.

While some wildlife watchers agree that they should contribute to wildlife agencies, the details of how to target a fee and what it should pay for have eluded managers for more than 20 years.

“State Parks had that challenge, and they got those license-plate fees,” said Montana Audubon Program Director Janet Ellis. “The Legislature needs to figure out how FWP can get a little slice of something like that.”

For a century, sportsmen have been the financial backbone of state wildlife management because of license fees and taxes on guns, ammunition and fishing gear.

Prior to the digital age, such funding was solid.

According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service national survey, conducted every five years, the number of hunters with Montana tags has been fairly steady since 1991, bouncing around 200,000.

In 2011, when the number of hunters appears to have rebounded nationwide, 50,000 fewer hunters ventured into Montana's wildlands, according to the survey.

That estimate is not exact, but FWP financial analyst Hank Worsech said license sales supports that decline.

He calculated that license sales have declined 2.5 percent over the past three years. Last year was the first that nonresident hunting licenses didn't sell out.

The Wildlife Society calculated a 36 percent drop in the sale of Duck Stamps, required for all who hunt waterfowl, since the 1970s.

Some claim nonresident hunters aren't coming to Montana due to perceptions that predators have eliminated game.

But states without wolves have similar problems. For instance, Vermont had a 50-percent drop in nonresident hunters.

A more worrying explanation is that older hunters are retiring from the game and fewer youth are coming in. Half of hunters are 50 or older. Young people tend to be more interested in video games and social media.

“Western states are competing for less and less people,” Worsech said.

Fishing has managed to hold on to greater popularity, but it too has seen a decline.

The trend could destabilize future FWP funding.

FWP depends on license sales for half its budget because it receives no money from the state's general fund. Federal money accounts for most of the rest.

“We operate in a world of, ‘We have a product to sell and we run on the revenue we collect.' We're different from other state agencies — we run more like a business,” said FWP Finance Division administrator Sue Daly.

License sales were brisk enough until four years ago. But since 2009, sales totals have decreased while the bills continued to increase, putting the agency in the red.

Part of that deficit is planned.

Montana's Legislature, like those in several states, considers license fee increases every 10 years. During the ensuing decade, the FWP bottom line slides from black to red as inflation rises.

This time, it's different.

Fewer license sales have combined with inflation to force the bottom line down faster. To slow the decline, FWP cut some programs, and committees are proposing to eliminate some discounted licenses.

If the negative-sales trend continues, legislators will have to hike license fees significantly to keep the budget on par.

That's bound to prompt complaints from some hunters.

But some, like Randy Newberg, think Montana's fees are low considering the hunting opportunity they provide and the conservation efforts that benefit the state economy.

“We need to tie (fee increases) to an annual consumer price index. Small increases are easier to swallow than a big increase,” Newberg said. “If hunters aren't willing to pay more, they're saying, ‘I'm willing to give up my seat at the table.'”

That table may get a bit more crowded in the next few years.

“I'm trying to sell my members on (fee increases) because there is pushback,” said Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock. “But we need to look beyond hunters and anglers because everyone enjoys wildlife. Funding will be the conservation challenge of the 21st century.”

FWP has watched as other states recently confronted that challenge.

Wyoming Game and Fish had to cut its 2014 budget by $4.8 million because of declining license sales and the Wyoming Legislature's refusal to approve a fee increase.

Last summer, after watching its license sales decrease by 25 percent, Idaho Fish and Game organized the Idaho Wildlife Summit to find alternative funding.

“As far as trying to find non-consumptive funding, that was never the overall plan. But we knew we were plowing new ground,” said Idaho game spokesman Mike Keckler. “Since then, the regional working groups have helped us come up with a few ideas for funding nongame programs.”

Keckler said the summit was meant to renew enthusiasm for wildlife.

But some hunting groups weren't enthusiastic because wildlife watchers include wolf watchers. So controversy overshadowed the search for solutions.

Some groups, such as Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, accused the Idaho Summit and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies of favoring wildlife viewers and photographers over hunters.

Non-consumptive users shouldn't have a say in the wildlife management that sportsmen have paid for, according to a Lobo Watch blog post written by Toby Bridges.

Big Game Forever spokesman Ryan Benson said wolves caused the financial problem, along with associated lawsuits.

“I don't think we should scrap the user-based model,” Benson said. “States couldn't protect their wildlife because of a federal program. The federal wolf recovery was a major contributing factor so there should be some help from the federal level.”

In Montana, FWP Commissioner Dan Vermillion recently suggested that wildlife advocates could contribute to that user-based model.

When wolf advocates claimed thousands opposed increasing wolf-hunt quotas, Vermillion suggested that they buy wolf tags. If FWP saw a sudden surge in license sales, then they'd have a better feel for the number of wolf advocates, Vermillion said.

That didn't go over well with wolf advocates, but Vermillion said FWP needs to find ways to bolster hunters' contributions.

“I think we're tricking ourselves if we don't recognize that Montana and the U.S. are changing. Look at Bozeman – it's full of wildlife enthusiasts,” Vermillion said. “Hunting and fishing are important, but we need to bring new stakeholders to the table.”

Wolves of the Rockies spokeswoman Kim Bean said advocates would never buy tags because they fund only collaring and lethal control.

Wolfwatcher Coalition executive director Diane Bentivegna said her 250,000 members would send contributions to wildlife agencies in every state that manages wolves but there's a catch: The money could go only toward non-lethal wildlife programs.

“Under current budgetary structure, we aren't allowed to say where our contributions go. We would like to introduce legislation that would allow us to fund agencies and have it go toward the programs that we support,” Bentivegna said.

Not every species has a support group, and direct donations aren't regular enough to help.

Wildlife agencies need to find a vehicle, such as a tax on equipment or a license plate fee, that provides a steady flow of money if non-traditional contributions are to be helpful.

Montana has a non-game donation that residents can make when they file their taxes, but it brings in only about $27,000 a year.

This summer, FWP non-game section chief Laurie Hanauska-Brown organized a meeting to “have the first discussion” with wildlife and birding organizations about how to bring more users in.

“The message can't be communicated as, ‘C'mon you non-consumptive users, it's time to step to the table,'” Hanauska-Brown said. “We want to make sure we're covering all the species so that we can bring more people on board.”

FWP is taking a very long-term approach with non-consumptive funding and will focus on more concrete options first, Hanauska-Brown said.

Newberg, although not opposed, is skeptical that recreational users will step up. He cited the failure of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act in 2000, when several manufacturers and groups rejected a tax on outdoor equipment.

“It was finally their chance to do what hunters do, but they bailed out,” Newberg said. “Hunters and anglers pay an excise tax. It's disingenuous to say, ‘We want a say in wildlife, but we don't want to pay for anything.'”


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