Wildlife viewing has been getting a free trip

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

It is based on the state’s staggering mountains, rivers full of fish, and forests where bears and wolves roam, all of which make Wyoming second to none.

That wildlife is managed by the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, with 85% of the cost being funded by hunters and fishermen. This happens largely through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, as well as taxes on related sporting goods through the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts.

But as we all know, hunters and fishermen aren’t the only people fascinated by wildlife. The number one reason people travel to Wyoming is to see wildlife, and wildlife viewing alone accounts for nearly half a billion dollars in state revenue. It also employs more than 10,000 people.

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However, the tourism industry that I am a part of as a wildlife guide contributes very little when it comes to funding wildlife conservation.

Taylor Phillips, owner of EcoTour Adventures in Jackson, felt this gap was unfair and wanted to do something about it. Since he founded his company in 2008, Phillips has donated more than $115,000 to nonprofit organizations working to conserve the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Phillips says he hoped other wildlife tourism companies would follow suit, but very few did. Wanting to change the narrative, Phillips teamed up with Chris McBarnes, president of The WYldlife Fund, a foundation associated with the Department of Fish and Game that helps fund wildlife projects throughout Wyoming. Together, the two men created Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that funds conservation by targeting businesses and people who depend on wildlife for their livelihood. 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 “tremendous 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 through the Wildlife Tourism website, and donors have the option to select the conservation projects their money supports.

One project currently in need of funding is the restoration of the sagebrush steppe in Grand Teton National Park. In the early 20th century, several thousand acres of land in the park were farmed for hay production, fragmenting wildlife habitat. Since 2009, the park has been working to restore 4,500 acres of former hayfields to sagebrush and grasses, a multi-year project with an annual budget of more than $400,000. Funding through the Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow donations helps keep the project on track.

The nonprofit organization also uses the money it raises to build wildlife crossings on highways and install wildlife-friendly fencing along migration corridors. Other contributions go toward wetland restoration and radio-collared elk for scientific study.

Projects that help wildlife are typically designed by organizations like 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 steps in to help fill the gaps in funding.

Since October 2021, Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow has donated over $125,000 raised from 68 businesses and dozens of individuals. One of his projects with Trout Unlimited in 2020 contributed $20,000 to prevent spawning cutthroat trout from becoming trapped in an irrigation system.

Leslie Steen of Trout Unlimited appreciated the help: “I’ve seen wildlife tours in the area and it’s great to think that those same companies are now giving back to native fish.”

Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow has grown rapidly in its first year, and the support of Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon has given it more visibility. Meanwhile, Phillips has spent a lot of time spreading the message that people who love wildlife need to 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 stimulating conversation about the West. He works as a wildlife guide in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

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