Writers on the Range: Wildlife watching has been given a free ride

Bull moose are pictured in Grand Teton National Park.
National Park Service / Courtesy photo

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 unmatched.

That wildlife is managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and 85% of the costs are financed by hunters and anglers. This is largely due to the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, as well as taxes on related sporting goods through the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson actions.

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 works over 10,000 people.

Yet the tourism industry that 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 in Jackson, Wyoming, felt this gap was unfair and wanted to do something about it. Since the founding of his company in 2008, Phillips has donated more than $115,000 to nonprofits working to preserve the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Phillips says he expected other wildlife tourism companies to follow his lead, but very few did. To change the narrative, Phillips partnered with Chris McBarnes, president of The WYldlife Fund, a partner foundation for the Game and Fish Department that helps fund wildlife projects throughout Wyoming. Together the two made men 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 through the Wildlife Tourism website, and donors have the option to select the conservation projects their money helps.

One project 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 cultivated for hay production, which fragmented the habitat for wildlife. Since 2009, the park has worked to restore 4,500 acres of former hayfields to sagebrush and grass, a multi-year project with an annual budget of more than $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 radio-collaring each 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 Game and Fish Department. Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow is stepping in to fill the 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 her projects with Trout Unlimited in 2020 is contributing $20,000 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 fishermen have been doing the heavy lifting.

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

Kelsey Wellington is a contributor to Writers on the Range, WritersOnTheRange.org, an independent non-profit dedicated to encouraging conversation about the West. She works as a wildlife guide in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

Kelsey Wellington
Kelsey Wellington

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