A new initiative in Wyoming is changing the face of funding for wildlife conservation, and it’s already been wildly successful in its first year.
Politics is based on the state’s rivers full of fish and mountains and forests where bears and wolves roam, all of which make Wyoming unmatched.
This wildlife is managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and 85% of the cost is funded by hunters and anglers. This happens largely through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and taxes on related sporting goods through the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts.
But as we all know, hunters and anglers aren’t the only ones fascinated by wildlife. The number one reason people travel to Wyoming is to see wildlife, and wildlife viewing alone accounts for nearly half a billion dollars in state revenue. It also employs more than 10,000 people.
However, the tourism industry that I am a part of as a wildlife guide contributes very little to funding wildlife conservation.
Taylor Phillips, owner of EcoTour Adventures in Jackson, Wyoming, felt this gap was unfair and wanted to do something about it. Since founding her business in 2008, Phillips has donated more than $115,000 to nonprofit organizations working to conserve the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Phillips says he hoped other wildlife tourism companies would follow suit, but very few did. Wanting to change the narrative, Phillips partnered with Chris McBarnes, president of The WYldlife Fund, a foundation associated with the Game and Fish Department that helps fund wildlife projects throughout Wyoming. Together, the two men created Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow, a non-profit organization that funds conservation by targeting businesses and people who depend on wildlife for a living. These are the companies that organize wildlife tours and the hotels, restaurants and shops that cater to wildlife watchers.
By tapping into that tourist constituency, the new group has “tremendous potential to change the face of wildlife conservation funding in Wyoming,” Phillips says. Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism, agrees, calling wildlife tourism for tomorrow “a crucial initiative” for wildlife conservation, especially as revenue from the hunting decrease.
Donations are collected from individuals and businesses through the Wildlife Tourism website, and donors can select the conservation projects their money helps.
One of the projects currently in need of funding is the restoration of sagebrush steppe in Grand Teton National Park. In the early 1900s, several thousand acres of land in the park were farmed for hay production, fragmenting wildlife habitats. Since 2009, the park has been working to restore 4,500 acres of former hay fields to sagebrush and grasses, a multi-year project with an annual budget of more than $400,000. Funding through donations from Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow helps keep the project going.
The nonprofit also uses the money it raises to build wildlife crossings on highways and install wildlife-friendly fences along migration corridors. Other contributions are directed toward wetland restoration and radio-collared elk for scientific studies.
Typically, projects that help wildlife are designed by organizations like Trout Unlimited, the US Forest Service, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The project’s developers then partner with other interested groups to seek funding through the state’s Game and Fish Department, which has no funding. Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow steps in to help fill funding gaps.
Since October 2021, Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow has donated more than $125,000 that was collected from 68 companies and dozens of individuals. One of his projects with Trout Unlimited in 2020 contributed $20,000 to prevent cutthroat trout from becoming trapped in an irrigation system.
Leslie Steen of Trout Unlimited thanked the help: “I’ve seen wildlife tours in the area, and it’s great to think that those same businesses are now giving back to the native fish.”
Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow has grown rapidly in its first year, and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon’s support has given it more visibility. Meanwhile, Phillips has spent a lot of time spreading the word that wildlife lovers need to step up. For too long, hunters and fishermen have been doing the heavy lifting.
Just a suggestion, other western states, but maybe it’s time to step up.
Kelsey Wellington is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to stimulating conversation about the West. He works as a wildlife guide in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.
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