Most hunters are proud to proclaim that "hunters pay for conservation." Although there is certainly a great deal of truth in the statement, it's not the whole story, especially in Alaska.
Wildlife-related money spent by the Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, BLM, U.S. Geological Survey and Forest Service comes from general federal tax revenue. Collectively, these agencies spend far more than the state. One can argue that much of this money is spent on administration rather than conservation, and much of it may not be spent very efficiently, but it is a huge amount of money nevertheless.
On the state side, Alaska's primary wildlife conservation agency, Alaska Department of Fish & Game's (ADF&G) Division of Wildlife Conservation, spends about $26 million annually. Of this, about $4 million is money from various kinds of federal tax revenue for special projects like marine mammal research (about $3 million), development-related mitigation research, and money for non-game research. Most of the remainder (about $18 million) comes equally from the ADF&G Fund and the federal excise tax on firearms and archery equipment, popularly known as the "Pittman-Robertson" or "Federal Aid" program. For states to be eligible for this Federal Aid money, they must be willing to match it on a 1:3 (state money:federal money) basis and create a dedicated fund. These funds come from hunters, they reside in a special state account, and importantly, they cannot be diverted away from ADF&G. This is the program that hunters can be rightly proud of and it is arguably the most successful long-term, user-funded, conservation program in the world. In Alaska, this money is spent mostly on biologist's salaries, management-related research on wildlife (primarily hunted species), routine data collection, and the administration of hunting programs. The information generated from these activities is used by the Board of Game and the division to design and implement the sustainable management programs on state, federal and private lands to provide Alaskan's and nonresidents with food, income, and recreation from wildlife.
Although Alaskan resident hunters are clearly the main beneficiaries of the $18 million spent for these programs, we really aren't paying much of the bill. Almost all of the $9 million in Federal Aid money comes from gun owners in the Lower 48 (who are mostly nonhunters) and most (75 percent) of the remaining $9 million in ADF&G Fund money comes from nonresident hunters. The bottom line is that Alaskan resident hunters are paying about $2 million (or about 7 percent) of the money used by ADF&G for wildlife conservation. In the past this has not been a major problem because the legislature has occasionally kicked in some general fund money and raised license fees to keep up with inflation.
Nonresidents have also been willing to pay high fees for the opportunity to hunt in Alaska. Recently, partly because of the state and federal subsistence laws, nonresident license revenue is down, and inflation and higher operating costs have taken their toll. As a result, ADF&G research and management programs, staffing, and data collection have been cut substantially.
A small pot of new federal money for management of nongame species has helped offset some costs that were previously paid by hunters, but the only long-term solution is for resident hunters to start paying more reasonable fees to help pay for our wildlife management programs.
Many Alaskan hunters are in favor of more intensive management to obtain higher yields from wildlife populations in some important hunting areas on state and private lands. These programs need to be done right and they require intensive data collection and expensive experimental approaches to management.
Science-based wildlife management costs money. No one else should be expected to pay the bill for these programs, and the $25 resident hunting license just won't do it. I doubt that even the proposed increase to $50 is enough. However, it is clearly time for Alaska's hunters to step forward and prove once again that "hunters pay for conservation."
Pat Valkenburg lives in Fairbanks and retired from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2003 after 26 years as a caribou researcher, management biologist and research coordinator in Fairbanks.