Kelsey Wellington: Wildlife viewing is now free

Kelsey Wellington: Wildlife viewing is now free

KELSEY-WELLINGTON

There’s a new initiative in Wyoming that’s changing the face of wildlife conservation funding, and it’s already had huge success in its first year.

It’s based on the state’s startling mountains, fish-filled rivers, and forests where bears and wolves roam – all of which make Wyoming unrivaled.

This wildlife is managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and 85% of the costs are funded by hunters and anglers. This occurs largely through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, as well as related sporting goods taxes 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 revenue for the state. It also employs over 10,000 people.

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Yet the tourism industry that I am part of as a wildlife guide contributes very little to wildlife conservation funding.

Taylor Phillips, owner of EcoTour Adventures in Jackson, Wyoming, felt this discrepancy was unfair and wanted to do something about it. Since founding his company in 2008, Phillips has donated more than $115,000 to nonprofits working to conserve the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Phillips says he expected other wildlife tourism businesses to follow his lead, but very few did. Wanting to change the narrative, Phillips teamed up with Chris McBarnes, president of the WYldlife Fund, a partner foundation of the Game and Fish department that helps fund wildlife projects in 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 run wildlife tours and the hotels, restaurants and shops that cater to wildlife watchers.

By tapping into this tourist constituency, the new group has “tremendous potential to change the face of wildlife conservation funding in Wyoming,” Phillips said. Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism, agrees, calling Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow “a crucial initiative” for wildlife conservation, especially as hunting revenues decline.

Donations are collected from individuals and businesses through the Wildlife Tourism website, and donors have the opportunity to select the conservation projects their money helps.

One project currently in need of funding is the restoration of the sagebrush steppe in Grand Teton National Park. In the early 1900s, several thousand acres of land in the park was cultivated for hay production, which fragmented wildlife habitat. Since 2009, the park has been working to restore 4,500 acres of old sagebrush and grass hayfields, a multi-year project with an annual budget of over $400,000. Funding through Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow donations helps keep the project going.

The nonprofit also uses the money it raises to build wildlife crossings on highways and install wildlife-friendly fencing along migration corridors. Other contributions go to restoring wetlands and installing radio collars for scientific study.

Usually, projects that help wildlife are designed by organizations such as Trout Unlimited, the US Forest Service, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Project developers then partner with other interested groups to seek funding through the state’s underfunded Department of Game and Fish. Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow is stepping in to help fill funding gaps.

Since October 2021, Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow has donated over $125,000 which has been raised from 68 businesses and dozens of individuals. One of his projects with Trout Unlimited in 2020 donated $20,000 to prevent breeding cutthroat trout from becoming trapped in an irrigation system.

Leslie Steen of Trout Unlimited appreciated the help: “I’ve seen wildlife tours in the area and it’s really good to think that these same companies are now giving back to the native fish. »

Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow grew rapidly in its first year, and support from Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon gave it more exposure. Meanwhile, Phillips has spent a lot of time pushing the message that people who love wildlife need to step up. For too long hunters and anglers have done the heavy lifting.

Just a suggestion, other western states, but maybe it’s time to get on board.

Kelsey Wellington contributes to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to stimulating conversation about the West. She works as a wildlife guide in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

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