The Nevada Department of Wildlife looks to enhance conservation through broader funding and expanded public engagement

by Brian Bahouth

Asio flammeus or the Short-eared owl, a species of conservation priority under the Nevada Wildlife Action Plan - photo: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Bob Tregilus Photography

According to congressional analysis, some 150 known species are presumed extinct and 500 more are on the brink. Twelve thousand commonly occurring species are marked to require immediate conservation intervention, and of them, 700 are already listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. A growing number of species across the nation and planetary biosphere are imperiled or extinct.

With a warming atmosphere, biologists continue to document resurgent wildlife illnesses and untold geographic disease patterns. Many species cannot adapt as temperatures within their traditional habitat ranges rise. Human encroachment drives habitat loss and fragmentation.

In 2015 the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) organized the Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America’s Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources to study and ideally prevent a growing, multifarious crisis that involves the funding of state wildlife agencies and the relevance of wildlife conservation activities in broader society.

In states like Nevada, fees charged for hunting licenses combined with revenue from an associated pair of federal excise taxes on guns, ammunition and other hunting and fishing gear have traditionally made up as much as 95 percent of the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s operating budget. But firearm sales vary widely on mercurial political and social influences. Recent polling shows the number of people who hunt is trending down. Firearm and archery purchases for target shooting makeup a growing segment of tax revenue; but target shooting is often unrelated to wildlife and conservation.

The demographics of wildlife agency constituencies are changing. With a decline in the number of hunters comes an increase in the number of people who appreciate nature and wildlife differently as species enthusiasts, at home and in the field.

For state wildlife managers, a roller coaster budgetary landscape and a shifting constituency profile makes conservation work increasingly difficult to plan and execute. The turbulence couldn’t come at a worse time in human ecological history.

Public awareness of the tenuous state of wildlife ecology and efforts to conserve the ecosystems that support wild animals is sketchy. Overall, a growing number of citizens are appreciating wildlife, yet wildlife managers across the nation struggle to convey the impact of wild animals and habitat conservation on quality of life and wellness, especially in growing urbanized populations.

Data from the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife Associated Recreation – graph – The Sierra Nevada Ally.

In 2015, Missouri Department of Conservation director Bob Ziehmer and former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal were among a small number of governmental representatives on the initial AFWA Blue Ribbon Panel. Researchers in relevant academic disciplines and outdoor industry representatives shared thinking. The founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris and Governor Freudenthal co-chaired the initial panel that ultimately offered a pair of recommendations.

The first was to develop a sustainable, reliable, and predictable funding mechanism to support conservation efforts in the states.

The second was to explore the societal changes and associated value systems behind wildlife attitudes. This recommendation led to the formation of the Relevancy Working Group.

Over a couple years the Relevancy Working Group made halting progress and endured the death of a key thought leader until 2018 when the Wildlife Management Institute convened a meeting of wildlife managers and experts in the field of human dimensions research and public engagement. Following that conference, the AFWA directed the Group to continue to develop what is now known as the Fish and Wildlife Relevancy Roadmap, a living document published in September of 2019. The Roadmap is not intended to be prescriptive and is adopted on a voluntary basis as a guide for wildlife management agencies.

Data from the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife Associated Recreation – graph – The Sierra Nevada Ally.

Tony Wasley is director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife and a leading voice in the national debate over wildlife agency funding models and relevancy. Beginning in 2014, Wasley chaired the AFWA’s Education, Outreach, and Diversity Committee where funding and relevancy challenges have been vigorously debated. In 2018, Wasley became co-chair of the group that authored the Relevancy Roadmap along with Steve Williams of the Wildlife Management Institute.

“In Nevada, for example, we rely on a disproportionately large amount of our funding, approximately 95 percent or so from a disproportionately small number of our species, approximately 8 percent of the 895 species for which we have the statutory responsibility to manage, and likely, fewer than 3 percent of our citizens,” Wasley said during an interview in his office.

The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act is more commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act. Every dollar raised from a state-issued hunting or fishing license fee can generate three dollars of federal revenue until a state cap is reached. The US Fish and Wildlife Service determines how much is distributed to each state based on a formula that accounts for the number of licensed hunters and the total land area of the state.

Wasley said the system is unfair and not sustainable.

“They (gun, ammo and fishing gear manufacturers) are writing checks to the US government for federal excise tax that in some cases exceed their profit margins. They’re writing larger checks in federal excise tax than the company makes in profit. Now, the middleman selling those goods, the Amazons and others that are selling those goods aren’t contributing to the federal excise tax or conservation at all. They make a profit without paying any federal excise tax and have a better margin,” Wasley said.

Adding to concerns, firearm sales are wildly inconsistent and tied to political and social influences. The threat of new gun laws, for instance, can inspire increased firearm sales. When Barack Obama was president, fear that 2nd Amendment rights would be curtailed spurred gun sales for Obama’s entire term in office, and wildlife management dollars were more abundant.

Under President Trump, gun sales have dropped by two thirds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gives state wildlife managers advance notice about the amount of tax dollars projected to be available, but the system of funding has proved unpredictable and reliant on too narrow a segment of businesses.

Despite current concerns, Pittman-Robertson has been a success. Since 1937, the law has enabled the collection and distribution of more than $8 billion for wildlife conservation efforts in states. The funding has helped restore once severely depleted national numbers of whitetail deer, wild turkeys, elk, and bighorn sheep, the Nevada state animal.

In addition to Pittman-Robertson, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency also distributes funds collected from an excise tax on fishing and water-related activities. Since 1950, the much amended Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act or Dingell-Johnson or Wallop-Breaux Act has levied a 10-percent excise tax on certain items of sport fishing tackle. The Act also applies a 3-percent excise tax on fish finders and electric trolling motors, imported fishing tackle, yachts, pleasure craft, and motorboat fuel.

Dingell-Johnson provides federal aid for the management and restoration of fish populations “in the marine and/or fresh waters of the United States.”

Since their inception, these two funding models have contributed a combined total of nearly $30 billion dollars for the nation’s conservation efforts as delivered through state wildlife agencies.

New funding sources

For state wildlife managers, hard state dollars are difficult to come by, especially in Nevada where new taxes and fees must be approved by a two thirds majority of both houses of the legislature. Wildlife and conservation would compete with education, health and human services and public safety for funding.

A bill now active in congress, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2019 (RAWA), would augment the Pittman-Robertson funding with $1.3 billion a year from the treasury to be distributed to the states for ongoing work and for special project grants. Both Pittman-Robertson excise taxes on guns and ammunition and Dingell-Johnson excise tax on fishing gear and yachts would remain in effect should the RAWA become law as written.

Data from the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife Associated Recreation – graph – The Sierra Nevada Ally.

For administrators like Wasley, passage of the RAWA would solve many problems. Under the current system of funding, there is an ideological territoriality that goes with paying the bills. Fees charged Nevada hunters and anglers combined with Pittman-Robertson revenue have long been NDOW’s fiscal backbone. Along with paying the bills comes an expectation of a return on investment, a perceived clout regarding where and under what circumstances hunting and trapping can occur. Wasley said hunters fear new dollars from the RAWA or elsewhere will come with a shift in agency priorities that imperil the act of hunting.

“The challenge becomes, how do we continue to honor and respect those customers who have paid so much and done so much for conservation without creating a perceived risk or threat to inviting different or more diverse perspectives into the room.

“Certainly, some of the critics of some of the efforts to broaden that funding have expressed concerns over what it might invite in terms of competing priorities, and I can certainly understand that. Our challenge as a state wildlife agency is to really continue to provide the goods and services to those traditional customers and try to get more people on the dance floor, and I think there is an opportunity for people to disagree here,” Wasley said.

Research shows a nationwide shift in societal core values regarding wildlife, and according to director Wasley, that change is nowhere more evident than in Nevada.

“Nevada is arguably the most urbanized state in the country. There is no other state in this country with a higher percentage of what the social scientists would call mutualists, which are people who see animals as part of their extended social networks, having rights equal to those as humans, often naming them and seeing these animals in their social network. There’s no state that has a higher percentage of mutualists presently than Nevada, other than California and Rhode Island.”

The 2018 Nevada Wildlife Values Report

As part of the project America’s Wildlife Values: Understanding Trends in Public Values toward Wildlife as a Key to Meeting Current and Future Wildlife Management Challenges, residents in many states to include Nevada were polled regarding their values, attitudes, and beliefs about wild animals and conservation. Respondents were organized into four categories.

Traditionalists: Score high on the domination orientation and low on the mutualism orientation and further believe wildlife should be used and managed for human benefit.

Mutualists: Score high on the mutualism orientation and low on the domination orientation and also believe wildlife are part of our social network and that we should live in harmony.

Pluralists: Score high on both the domination and mutualism orientations. Pluralists prioritize these values differently depending on the specific context.

Distanced individuals: Score low on both the domination and mutualism orientations and often believe that wildlife-related issues are less salient to them.

Nevada results from the 2018 Nevada Wildlife Values Report as part of the project “America’s Wildlife Values: Understanding Trends in Public Values toward Wildlife as a Key to Meeting Current and Future Wildlife Management Challenges.” – graph – The Sierra Nevada Ally

Nevada is a well-suited emblem for rapidly shifting attitudes about wildlife and conservation.

“We’ve seen a shift from the traditionalist towards the mutualist. That shift in Nevada is attributable to three things. It’s attributable primarily to the urbanization that’s occurred. We have a greater and greater percentage of our citizens living in large towns or cities, and that’s mainly Reno, Carson, and Las Vegas.

“Second, higher levels of education also show tendencies towards mutualism, and then higher earnings. So those three things, higher rates of urbanization, higher levels of education, and higher earnings. And not all of which are independent of one another but all trend towards mutualists,” Wasley said.

Nevada has one of the lowest percentages of rural citizens of any state. Between 2000 and 2018, Nevada’s population grew by 51.85 percent, one of the fastest growing state populations in the nation. Census data shows the state’s two most populace counties, Clark and Washoe, grew at 3.5 times the rate of rural areas. Washoe and Clark counties taken together grew at a 57 percent growth rate between 2000 and 2018. The remaining 15 counties collectively grew 16 percent over the same time.

Centrocercus Urophasianus or Sage-grouse, a Nevada protected game bird – image – CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Bob Tregilus Photography

Barriers to engagement

The Relevancy Roadmap sorted barriers to engagement in 5 categories. Agency Culture, Agency Capacity, Constituent Culture, Constituent Capacity, and Political and Legal Constraints.

Agency Culture Barrier

  • Agency culture and values do not align with nature-based values and outdoor interests of broader constituencies.
  • Agency is not adaptive to the changing nature-based values and outdoor interests of broader constituencies.
  • Agency has a competitive and siloed culture that inhibits collaboration.

Agency Capacity

  • Agency lacks sufficient and diverse funding to provide programs and services to broader constituencies.
  • Agency lacks capacity to identify, understand, engage with and serve the needs of broader constituencies.
  • Agency lacks capacity to develop and implement plans that engage and serve broader constituencies.
  • Agency lacks capacity to create and sustain effective partnerships to serve broader constituencies.
  • Agency lacks expertise and knowledge to provide outdoor recreational experiences that serve broader constituencies.

For Wasley, the solution is not asking current employees to change their attitudes but to build understanding and empathy.

“As we examine the agency, we aren’t asking our employees to change their purpose. We’re not asking them to change their passion, ‘why’ they’re here. We’re asking them to understand other people’s ‘why’ and to think about other people’s ‘why’ as they speak to their ‘why.’

“I’ve been with this agency, I’m in my 23rd year and I used to believe that our customer was the wildlife, that we were the voice for these voiceless organisms out there on the landscape that needed us to speak for them. As I think about our statutory charge now, and I think about our purpose here, our purpose to the person in this agency first and foremost is enhancing our ability to conserve, enhancing conservation,” Wasley said.

Data from the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife Associated Recreation – graph – The Sierra Nevada Ally.

Wasley points out that a wide variety of professionals work for NDOW. The cross section of traditionalist, mutualist, pluralist or distanced within the agency differs from those of society, which comes with the potential to create barriers to relevance.

“We have career IT people. We have accountants. We have engineers. We have veterinarians. We have pilots. We have people who didn’t go to school to be biologists. And the reason they stay here is because of the purpose driven work. They believe in conservation and they believe strongly in conservation. We’re not asking them to change that belief. We’re not asking them to shift that ‘why,’ we’re saying what we do binds us all and provides us all the passion to do what we do every day.

“We’re not saying that you need to be less passionate about your pursuit of Lahontan cutthroat trout as an avid fly angler, but we’re saying, understand that there are people who have different wildlife value orientations than you and the way that we talk about these things and manage these things.”

Constituent culture – from the Relevancy Roadmap

  • Perception by broader constituents that fish and wildlife agency only cares about and serves hunters and anglers.
  • Constituents may have fears, concerns, or beliefs that prevent them from engaging with nature.
  • Constituents may not recognize the threats facing fish and wildlife, their habitats, and humans, or how to engage to address the threats.
  • Some constituents are resistant to an agency engaging and serving broader constituencies.

Constituent capacity

  • Broader constituencies’ outdoor recreation pursuits are limited by real and perceived barriers such as economics, cultural norms, nature-based values, outdoor interest and access limitations.

The Department of Wildlife is not the only decision-making body regarding wildlife management in Nevada.

The 9-member Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners meet 9 times a year at various locations around the state. Members are responsible for setting annual animal harvest limits and otherwise oversee regulation of boating, hunting, fishing, and trapping activities in the state. A few Board decisions have resulted in loud, ongoing public clashes between traditionalists and mutualists over the state’s bear hunt and trapping laws.

Anti-bear hunting and anti-trapping activists say the Board of Wildlife Commissioners is an example of Regulatory Capture, which effectively means that the regulators and regulated are the same. Activists assert that citizens are disenfranchised. The appointment of commissioners is the sole responsibility of governors.

Governors appoint Wildlife Commissioners pursuant to NRS 501.171. Five of the 9 members of the Board must represent “sportsmen” and must have recently held a fishing or hunting license. One of the 9 members must represent ranching. Another must represent farming. One must be an emissary of the general public, and one commissioner must represent the conservation perspective.

From the statute:

1.  A county advisory board to manage wildlife shall submit written nominations for appointments to the Commission upon the request of the Governor and may submit nominations at any other time.
2.  After consideration of the written nominations submitted by a county advisory board to manage wildlife and any additional candidates for appointment to the Commission, the Governor shall appoint to the Commission:
(a) One member who is actively engaged in and possesses experience and expertise in advocating issues relating to conservation;
(b) One member who is actively engaged in farming;
(c) One member who is actively engaged in ranching;
(d) One member who represents the interests of the general public; and
(e) Five members who during at least 3 of the 4 years immediately preceding their appointment held a resident license to fish or hunt, or both, in Nevada.

Antelocapra americana or Pronghorn Antelope – image – CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Bob Tregilus Photography

Wasley said he certainly understands the feelings and opinions of citizens who disagree with Department or Board of Wildlife Commissioners decisions, but given the broad spectrum of attitudes toward wildlife in Nevada, pleasing everyone is an unrealistic expectation.

“When people don’t like the outcome, they often find fault with the process. I understand it’s not a perfect process, but it is an improving process, and with efforts like the Relevancy Roadmap and others, I think state agencies are becoming increasingly aware of how the makeup of their agencies may differ from the makeup of their constituencies in a way that will help them to better communicate and better address some of the priorities of their constituents.”

There are ongoing calls to change the composition of the Board of Wildlife Commissioners to better reflect the wildlife attitudes of the state’s population. Anti-bear hunting and anti-hunting activists believe that if hunting and trapping were decided by popular vote, trapping and hunting would be over in the Silver State. To change the makeup of the Board would require a statutory action. A bill would have to pass both houses of the legislature during an upcoming biennial session and be signed by the governor, which is no mean feat.

For Tony Wasley, the notion of ending or curtailing hunting in the state is unrealistic.

“I go back to the funding for conservation and those who would attack hunting because they find the killing of an animal distasteful. It would present a significant challenge to fund conservation as we know it. We would be worse off without hunting today than with hunting, simply based on the passion, the purpose, the volunteerism, the revenue. And so, to sit back and say that I find it distasteful to kill an animal, is an opinion.”

Tony Wasley has been an observer and occasional participant in Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners meetings for more than 20 years and says he has seen philosophical change among Board members in recent years. When the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2019 was introduced in congress, the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners was the first such board in the nation to pass a resolution in support of the legislation.

“I’ve seen change,” Wasley said of the Board. “I can point to one issue in particular and that is the commercial collection of reptiles (snakes, lizards, turtles, and tortoises) in the state 20 years ago. There was a desire within the Department for the Commission to pursue stricter regulations or prohibition of commercial collection of reptiles, essentially the unregulated commercial collection of reptiles and that there were limits or seasons on those reptiles, and the Commission historically didn’t take action.

“However, more recently, the Commission took action and ended the commercial collection of reptiles in Nevada. So there have been philosophical changes, despite the fact that there hasn’t been changes in the statutory requirements necessarily of the members.”

Wasley said efforts to change the makeup of the Board to end or curtail hunting in the state should be reconsidered whether the RAWA becomes law or not.

“If anti-hunting or those kinds of movements are successful at all in curtailing those opportunities (hunting), we have to ask ourselves, how are we going to pay for conservation in this country, number one. Number two, how are we going to replace the food that wild harvest provides? And at what cost? Those questions should be part of any  solution offered,” Wasley said.

The Wild Harvest Initiative (WHI) recently undertook a massive study that attempts to quantify the wild meat taken every year by recreational hunters and anglers in the U.S. and Canada. During the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 hunting seasons, roughly 48,133,464 pounds of live-harvest duck were taken, which translates into 15,009,946 pounds of consumable duck meat. According to the WHI, that much duck accounts for 57,093,826 meals over the two-year period with a total cash value of $194,979,199.

According to WHI, Elk are harvested in 22 jurisdictions across the United States, to include Nevada. From 2014 to 2016, total elk harvest is estimated at 383,361 animals, which represents 85,424,346 pounds of consumable meat or 340 million meals.

The environmental costs of raising enough chicken and beef to replace the wild duck and elk is difficult to calculate, but commercial animal farming is notorious for significant contamination of soil, water and air.

The Nevada Department of Wildlife is a Wild Harvest Initiative partner organization. As an organization, the Wild Harvest Initiative may offer clues for wildlife and conservation managers in ways to engage broader constituencies, beyond hunters and anglers.

The Initiative is working to make hunting like other well-accepted natural resource use traditions in the public consciousness like beekeeping, berry-picking, mushroom foraging, and firewood gathering. The following is from The Wild Harvest Initiative’s promotional material:

The program’s broad and inclusive focus provides a non-confrontational platform to engage discussions with non-hunters and non-anglers, and even those opposed to traditional sustainable use activities. We forecast powerful social connections of mutual support.

Sustainable funding models for wildlife agencies has been a rough and tumble topic of discussion for decades. Tony Wasley looks to the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act of 2019 as the best solution.

“Right now, the greatest hope and the closest that we’ve come to a predictable, reliable, sustainable funding model is the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.”

If made law, the RAWA would require a match from states. For every non federal dollar provided , state wildlife agencies would receive three in federal funding through RAWA.

“That could be used for (wildlife) education. It can be used for recreation up to 15 percent. It can be used unlimited for law enforcement in terms of protection of species listed in the state Wildlife Action Plan, and it can be used unlimited for management of those 256 species and 22 habitats (listed in the Plan).”

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act passed out of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Committee on December 5, 2019 on a 26 to 6 vote. Wasley said wildlife conservation should not and is not a partisan issue, and following committee passage, he and other wildlife administrators are encouraged and hopeful the important legislation will not become a victim of cross-party rancor and politics.

If Recovering America’s Wildlife Act becomes law, state-level conservation and wildlife budgets will be normalized over time, but significant social and cultural differences about wildlife remain. For Tony Wasley and wildlife managers across the nation, the need to better understand and engage a new generation of constituencies is imperative.

“We need to make sure that we are at least aware of and sensitive to the diversity of opinions that exists out there because if we’re not, we’re not going to be able to adapt to those changes. And when we don’t adapt to those changes, we too like the blacksmith shall go away.”


Brian Bahouth has been news director at three public radio stations and writes about the environment and science for Nevada Capital News, which will soon become the Sierra Nevada Ally, the aL ī. Brian has a special interest in wildlife and conservation issues. Detailed articles like the one above take weeks to gather, research and write. Take time to support his work.