Q and A With Ron Regan: May 2010

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Ron Regan, executive director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, spoke with State Legislatures about the challenges of managing wildlife and habitat. Before coming to his current post, Regan spent more than 25 years working in wildlife management and conservation in the state of Vermont. He was appointed commissioner of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department in 1999 and held that post for four years. He also held other senior positions in the department.

State Legislatures: What kind of role can state legislatures take in wildlife conservation?

Ron Regan: Fish and wildlife populations are public trust resources and state fish and wildlife agencies are the principal managing authority or steward of those resources on behalf of the public. This is a foundational principle for fish and wildlife conservation in the United States.

The specific legal authority or jurisdiction of any fish and wildlife agency is the product of law (and administrative policy or regulations grounded in that body of law). Therefore, state legislatures can play an important role in wildlife conservation – passing legislation that offers constructive conservation policy, enabling management tools, and funding mechanisms. In addition, fish and wildlife agency budgets require the approval of state legislatures and the “power of the appropriations pen” offers an opportunity to support fish and wildlife conservation funding.


SL: Since a lot of critical habitat may be on private lands, how important is collaboration with private landowners?

Regan: Private landowners are a very important factor in successfully managing fish and wildlife resources within a state. Private landowners manage habitat—the single most important factor for wildlife health and abundance. In addition, private lands offer important opportunities for regulated hunting, fishing, and trapping.

Most state agencies have programs that target work with private landowners—offering technical assistance, services and materials to improve habitat on such holdings.

SL: Do you have any examples of this kind of collaboration?

Regan: Sure. I spent 26 years working for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department before coming to Washington, DC to begin my employment with the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The farms and forestlands of Vermont are largely held in private ownership. The Department offered direct technical assistance to private landowners, especially those with special habitat features or types on the property, and provided technical resources for foresters and agriculture extension specialists to broaden the effective reach of habitat consultation.

Many states partner with the Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to deliver conservation priorities such as clean water, clean air, and fish, wildlife and habitat improvements. These state and federal agencies work together to address mutual priorities such as restoring wetlands and grasslands; improving forest health and functions; and, reducing soil erosion, stabilizing and naturalizing stream banks to name a few. In many states, this partnership goes so far as to share biological expertise between agencies and work literally side-by-side to provide the most comprehensive technical assistance possible to landowners.

SL: How have states taken advantage of the opportunity to purchase habitat over the last few years?

Regan: Public ownership of habitat—both with fee simple and easement instruments—is another conservation strategy for state fish and wildlife agencies. Such properties, often named Wildlife Management Areas, become sites for habitat management, special protection for critical habitat features or populations, and public access for wildlife dependent recreation including hunting, fishing, and trapping. State fish and wildlife agencies often partner with the private sector (e.g., local land trusts) in securing habitat interests through acquisition.

SL: What are the direct economic benefits of wildlife?

Regan: Healthy and abundant resources of fish and wildlife populations provide wildlife viewing and harvest opportunities, an important motivation for enjoying the great outdoors. Wildlife-associated activities such as hunting, fishing, viewing and photography also contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy. According to the most recent National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-associated Recreation, more than 87 million Americans spent over $122 billion in 2006 on wildlife-related activities. The Outdoor Foundation reports that outdoor recreation in total is worth approximately $730 billion annually.

License fees and excise taxes on hunting, shooting sports and angling equipment provide the vast majority of funding for state fish and wildlife agencies. In 2009, hunters spent more than $764 million and anglers spent over $604 million on licenses, tags, permits and stamps (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). The excise tax receipts on gear in 2009 are forecast to exceed $1 billion.

In addition, hunters, anglers, nature enthusiasts and bird watchers spend money in local communities on trip-related expenses such as gas, outdoor gear, food and lodging—adding up to more than $37 billion in 2006. Combined with manufacturing businesses, wildlife-based recreation supports close to three million U.S. jobs.

SL: How about indirect? Obviously, clean water for fish also means savings for people, can you discuss this a bit?

Regan: You are absolutely right—habitat conservation provides clean water, open space and connected landscapes. Taken as a whole, these features mean that people have cleaner air and water and places to recreate—all for their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. It makes sense to conserve fish, wildlife and habitat resources – it pays dividends for all of us. Healthy fish and wildlife populations mean healthy human populations. For example, investments in landscape and habitat based projects in the New York watershed provided clean water at a fraction of the cost of building a new water treatment facility.

SL: State wildlife management is quite reliant on hunting and fishing license revenues for operating funds. How does a reliance on license fees affect public perception and engagement in wildlife issues?

Regan: Sportsmen and women have been foundational to wildlife conservation in this country. As noted above license fees and excise taxes have funded the conservation success stories of the past 100 years in no small measure. Some people might conclude that state fish and wildlife agencies are only concerned with game species or hunter interests. However, in the past 30 years we have seen explicit mission expansion and related name changes (e.g., from fish and game to fish and wildlife) and state agencies are restoring endangered species and managing small mammals, reptiles, and nongame fishes. This activity is all in keeping with their broader, public trust mandate and with the full support of sportsmen and women who appreciate all that the natural world has to offer and want to protect it.

SL: How does this reliance affect funding stability? Any examples of states moving towards a more broad-based funding scheme?

Regan: Declining rates of angling and hunting participation over the past 60 years are a real concern—the financial resources provided by hunters and anglers are a lifeline for fish and wildlife conservation. State fish and wildlife agencies have sought to broaden funding concomitant with new and expanding expectations for conservation. Many states have income tax check-offs or conservation license plates to produce broader funding for nongame species. A few states have succeeded in securing broad-based funding through percentages of sales tax or lottery receipts. State legislatures are instrumental in authorizing such new funding mechanisms.

Given that the conservation work of state fish and wildlife agencies enriches the lives of many Americans, broader funding makes public policy sense. The Association has been at the forefront of this position for nearly two decades with its Teaming With Wildlife Campaign which advocates for dedicated national funding via royalties on oil and gas exploration or climate change adaptation legislation.