There’s a new initiative in Wyoming that’s changing the face of wildlife conservation funding, and it’s already seen great success in its first year.
It is based on the state’s stunning mountains, rivers full of fish, and forests where bears and wolves roam – everything that makes Wyoming unrivaled.
The state’s wildlife management is the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which is about 85% funded by hunters and anglers. This occurs largely through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, as well as taxes on sporting goods related to these activities through the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts.
But as we all know, hunters and fishermen are not the only people who are fascinated by wildlife. The number one reason people travel to Wyoming is to view wildlife, and wildlife viewing alone accounts for nearly half a billion dollars in state revenue. It also employs more than 10,000 people.
Yet the tourism industry, which I am a part of as a wildlife guide, contributes very little when it comes to wildlife conservation funding.
Taylor Phillips, owner of EcoTour Adventures, a wildlife tour company based in Jackson, Wyoming, felt this gap was unfair and wanted to do something about it. Since founding his company in 2008, Phillips has donated more than $115,000 to nonprofit organizations working to preserve the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Phillips says he expected other wildlife tourism companies to pounce, but very few did. To change the narrative, Phillips partnered with Chris McBarnes, president of The WYldlife Fund, a partner foundation to the state Game and Fish Department that helps fund wildlife projects throughout Wyoming. Together, the two men created Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow, a nonprofit that funds conservation by targeting businesses and people who depend on wildlife to make 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 enormous potential to change the face of funding wildlife conservation in Wyoming,” says Phillips. 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 both individuals and businesses, and donors have the option to select the conservation projects their money helps.
The nonprofit also uses the money to build wildlife crossings to minimize vehicle collisions, as well as to install wildlife-friendly fencing along migration corridors. Other contributions go to restoring wetlands and radio-collaring each for scientific study.
Since October 2021, Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow has raised more than $200,000 for Wyoming wildlife from more than 70 companies and dozens of individuals, and has gifted $84,900 for wildlife conservation projects. Trout Unlimited received a $20,000 gift in 2020 for a project to prevent spawning cutthroat trout from being 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 neat to think that the same companies are now giving back to native fish.”
Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow has grown rapidly in its first year, and support from Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon has given it more visibility. Meanwhile, Phillips has spent a lot of time spreading the word that wildlife lovers should step up. For too long, hunters and anglers have been doing the heavy lifting.
Hey, other western states, maybe it’s time to get on board.
Kelsey Wellington is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to encouraging conversation about the West. She works as a wildlife guide in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks