In 2011, a bill creating a new tax on birdseed to fund wildlife conservation had widespread support, including the governor’s. It failed.
That wouldn’t be the first attempt or the last. It first surfaced in 2009. It was introduced again in 2015, and went nowhere.
Lobbyist and former Oregon lawmaker Stephen Kafoury said he knows why: “T-A-X! A three-letter word that’s worse than any four-letter word you or I can think of.”
That is the political context facing the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife as it searches for new funding: a state that has repeatedly rejected increased taxation, even for public safety or education, issues considered more central to government works than wildlife conservation.
To secure funding for nongame species conservation, proponents will now have to succeed where others have failed.
“I don’t see a real strong path forward, frankly,” said Kafoury, who worked on the bird seed tax as part of his lobbying for the Wildlife Society. “They’re putting a lot of effort in I applaud them for that. They’re good people. They’ve got a real uphill battle.”
Filling the gap
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife leaders are looking for an $80 million budget increase to fulfill its mission. In its last budget, Oregon Fish and Wildlife faced a shortfall of $32 million.
Agency leaders have pinned their hopes to efforts at the national and state levels seeking new revenue streams. The agency is also asking for an increased share of the state’s general fund. This past year, Oregon lawmakers created a 17-person task force to examine the agency’s budget and find new revenue. That has resulted so far in proposals for additional income taxes and bottle taxes.
“We’re optimistic that something is going to break in one or more of those,” ODFW Director Curt Melcher said. If none of those work, Melcher said the agency will simply “limp along, doing the work as we have.”
A smaller share of Oregonians hunt and fish than in past decades, so the traditional funding for fish and wildlife agencies has fallen, even as rising populations have tasked them with a larger and broader workload.
The role of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife and the state’s demographics have shifted, but the cost burden did not. Outside of hunters and fishers, the general public and the conservation community puts very little money toward ODFW.
"The current cycle of raising fees every other year is really unsustainable from a hunter’s perspective," said Dominic Aiello, president of the Oregon Outdoor Council. "Hunters want all wildlife to thrive."
Aiello said he doesn't oppose the idea of hunting and fishing dollars being used on nongame wildlife. But, he said, that's hard sell to hunters if opportunities are not improving.
"When we're spending money and populations are continuing to decline. It's pretty hard to justify to those people well, we need to take some of this money and put it in other parts of conservation," he said. "What you'll see is a continued growth of frustration with the agency because of that."
Efforts to generate money for wildlife agencies outside hunting and fishing fees date back several decades. Proposals for taxes on bird seed and outdoor gear have gained and lost popularity over the years, but never come to fruition.
Without legislation at the national level, other states use sales tax and other methods to fund wildlife conservation. Missouri, for instance, generates $100 million per year for wildlife conservation through a sales tax. Florida uses a tax on real estate transactions.
In Oregon, lawmakers have said no repeatedly to funding proposals for ODFW, including the the bird seed tax and a specialty license plate for endangered species. Meanwhile, they cut the agency’s share of the state’s general fund, prompting it to reduce staffing levels and to increase its dependency on hunting and fishing fees.
The agency itself has tried several methods to raise money outside of hunting and fishing licenses over the years, including a conservation-themed stamp and specialty wines available for purchase. None have worked. A check-off on state tax forms once generated more than $100,000 per year for nongame conservation, still far short of the program’s costs, but even that eventually slowed to a trickle and has now expired.
The uphill battle
Species such as amphibians, nongame birds and reptiles have few champions in the Oregon Legislature.
Lobbyists for hunting and fishing groups largely focus on species that can be hunted or fished. Wildlife conservation groups devote the majority of their resources to a select few species, like the marbled murrelet or gray wolves, which are the subject of frequent lawsuits.
Many are hopeful about the latest task force assigned to tackle the funding issue but skeptical the legislature will act on it. Some of the state’s conservationists hope the proposed taxes for ODFW will eventually reach the ballot, which they see success more likely than in the legislature.
The task force weighed over 30 different ideas to generate money for ODFW. It eventually landed on two as recommendations to the legislature, which could decide on them in its upcoming session.
The first idea is a surcharge on income tax returns based on a percentage of income. The second is a 2 percent tax on beverage containers. Either would generate about $80 million for the agency budget.
Likely proponents of increased funding for wildlife conservation, such as Oregon Wild, are instead skeptical of the effort. Steve Pedery, the group’s conservation director, said he does not trust ODFW to spend its new money on conservation rather than fishing or hunting.
“The idea of just giving the agency more money, a blank check, without a clear understanding of how it’s going to be spent, is a really difficult pill for anyone to swallow, particularly anyone working on wildlife conservation,” said Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild.
Melcher, the ODFW Director, said agency’s budget is largely prescribed by the Legislature, and that conservation groups as well as hunting and fishing groups would have a say in how the new money is spent.
“The department never gets to unilaterally decide how we spend money,” Melcher said. “Their fears that we’re going to somehow spend the money in a way where they have no say in the matter are unwarranted.”
When lawmakers created the task force for Oregon Fish and Wildlife funding last year, they meant for it to examine how the department manages its money and sets priorities.
But in months of meetings and deliberations, the task force narrowed in on proposals for new money, deciding not to addressed the department’s current spending.
State Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, pressed task force members on that in August, during one of its final meetings.
“Is this task force just punting one of the three charges from the Legislature?” Whitsett asked. “One of the charges of this group was to evaluate the current programs: the overlap, the redundancies, the effectiveness of the programs in the current budget. We haven’t done that.”
In response, members told Whitsett they collectively lacked the expertise to tackle those questions, and had decided to focus on developing a funding source that would meet the department’s current needs and pass the legislature.
The task force will present its final report to Whitsett and other lawmakers in December.