More wildlife lovers need to fund conservation – The Durango Herald

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

It’s based on the state’s startling mountains, rivers filled with fish, and forests where bears and wolves roam – everything that makes Wyoming unrivaled.

Managing the state’s wildlife is the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which is funded at some 85% by hunters and anglers. This happens 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 anglers aren’t the only people fascinated by wildlife. The number one reason people travel to Wyoming is to see wild animals, and wildlife watching alone accounts for almost half a billion dollars in state revenue. It also employs over 10,000 people.

Yet the tourism industry, which I’m part of as a wildlife guide, contributes very little when it comes to funding wildlife conservation.

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 business in 2008, Phillips donated over $115,000 to nonprofits that work to conserve the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Phillips says he expected other wildlife tourism businesses to catch on, but very few did. Wanting 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 across Wyoming. Together, the two men created Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow, a nonprofit that funds conservation by targeting businesses and people that depend on wildlife to make their living. These are the companies that run wildlife tours, and the hotels, restaurants and shops that cater to wildlife watchers.

By tapping into this tourism constituency, the new group “has enormous potential to change the face of wildlife conservation funding 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, and also to install wildlife-friendly fencing at migration corridors. Other contributions go towards restoring wetlands and radio-collaring elk for scientific study.

Since October of 2021, Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow has raised over $200,000 for Wyoming’s wildlife from over 70 businesses and dozens of individuals, and has given $84,900 in gifts for wildlife conservation projects. Trout Unlimited received a gift of $20,000 in 2020 for a project to keep spawning cutthroat trout from getting trapped in an irrigation system.

Trout Unlimited’s Leslie Steen appreciated the help: “I’ve seen wildlife tour trips in the area and it is really neat to think that those same businesses are now giving back to native fish.”

Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow has grown quickly 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 people who love wildlife need to 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 spurring conversation about the West. She works as a wildlife guide in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks