Conservation agencies need modern world address

If you listen to the rhetoric coming from the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, both agencies have been struggling to make ends meet financially for several decades now.

The reason for those financial woes is relatively simple. First, both our fish and game agencies are “independently” funded, meaning they get no general tax revenue and are primarily supported by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. For the past 20 years or more, the sales of hunting and fishing licenses and the revenue stream they produce have steadily declined.

But both the PGC and the PFBC are typical money-hungry bureaucracies staffed by employees who enjoy the same wage scale, benefit package and pension plan as their counterparts in all the other money-hungry state bureaucracies. Except all those other bureaucracies are funded by that wonderful cookie jar known as the Pennsylvania state treasury.

The logical solution to adequately funding the PGC and the PFBC is also relatively simple, yet everyone involved seems willing to dance around the obvious. Although last week, PGC Executive Director Bryan Burhans came close in some statements he made as part of a promotion for a pair of 2019 calendars featuring wild birds and other Pennsylvania wildlife “to raise money for wildlife conservation among residents who normally don’t contribute to wildlife’s wellbeing in the Keystone State.

In the press release, Burhans said, “It’s no secret, the overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians whose lives are enriched by wildlife don’t have a chance to contribute toward its conservation. We’d like to change that by offering these calendars as a way for Pennsylvanians to get more excited about wildlife and contribute to its conservation.

Our 2019 wild bird and wildlife calendars provide a way for more residents to contribute to Pennsylvania’s wildlife conservation. It’s something just about every Pennsylvanian believes is important, yet only a fraction of us support monetarily. For the sake of wildlife, I hope that can change.”

Yes, Director Burhans, it is indeed a travesty in a state as rich in natural resources as Pennsylvania that hunters and anglers foot most of the bill for conservation. We are the only state that has “independently” funded fish and game agencies, and it is beyond obvious that the independently funded model we’ve employed here since the late 1800s is deplorably obsolete if it ever was really practical.

Consider another statement touting the calendar, “Make no mistake, every dollar raised for Pennsylvania wildlife conservation matters in an era when so many neotropical birds are in decline; when cave bats have lost up to 95 percent of their populations to white-nose syndrome; and when the state bird, the ruffed grouse, has been decimated by West Nile virus.”

I’m a hunter who cares deeply about neotropical birds and cave bats just as much as ruffed grouse. But I don’t buy a hunting license for songbirds or bats, and neither does anyone else. The PGC is charged with managing the more than 400 species of wild birds and mammals that live in Pennsylvania, but only about 15 or 20 of those sell any hunting licenses. The same is true for the PFBC.

They are charged with managing snakes, frogs, turtles, salamanders, freshwater mussels and all the other critters that most folks find creepy or off-putting. But like them or not, we should be managing them as well, and all citizens of Pennsylvania should be contributing to that end. Expecting an ever-shrinking number of hunters and anglers to continue to shoulder most of the financial load for wildlife conservation is not fair, feasible or even sustainable.

But that’s not just my opinion. The Constitution of Pennsylvania clearly states: “Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

The profits of selling a few calendars at $10 a copy, even if the PGC actually realizes a profit from the project, isn’t going to make a dent in the annual operating budget of the agency. We simply can’t continue the same course for funding the PGC and PFBC, expecting to wring more and more dollars from fewer and fewer license buyers each year.

It’s well past the time for Pennsylvania to join the other 49 states and make our wildlife conservation agencies true state agencies and get a fair share of funding from the state treasury.

Currently, 80 cents of every dollar we send the Game Commission goes to the salaries, benefits and pension program of the 400 or so agency employees, while the measly 20 cents that is left must fund all the wildlife management programs for both game and non-game species.

Since the state mandates those employee salaries, benefits and pension contributions, a more realistic distribution would be to allocate 80 cents of every hunting license dollar to wildlife management programs and 20 cents to personnel costs and let the state treasury pick up the slack. Given that hunters only comprise about 10 percent of the population in Pennsylvania, that 20-percent contribution is more than equitable.

Our General Assembly, PGC and PFBC need to take a hard look at a calendar and realize we are nearing the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Yet our “independent” conservation agencies are dependent on an obsolete, inadequate and unsustainable funding structure from the nineteenth century when those agencies were formed. It’s well past the time to change this situation for the benefit of the natural resources of Pennsylvania and all the citizens who cherish them.