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MDC’s Trophy Case

MDC’s Trophy Case

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 12.30.25 PMA 14-point buck. A five-pound small-mouth bass. Hunters and anglers have been hanging their trophies on family-room walls and above fireplace mantels for years. And for years, the Missouri Department of Conservation has been hanging its own trophy of sorts. It’s referred to as the “Missouri Model,” which exemplifies how the department has been a leader among its peers across the nation in the way it is funded and structured.


The beginnings

More than 1,500 feet separate Missouri’s highest point from its lowest, and the lakes, fields, hills and plains between teem with life and outdoor enthusiasts. In fact, more than half a million hunters traverse the Show-Me State, and more than twice that amount draw fish from its waters.

One might think that with almost 70,000 square miles, Missouri has an endless supply of game and vegetation. Up until about 80 years ago, many people and businesses thought that very thing or at least didn’t contemplate an existence without such resources. Yet, that’s almost what happened: a bionetwork diminishing at a startling rate.

In the early 1930s, while the Great Depression ravished our cityscapes, what could be called the Great Depletion was ravishing our landscapes.

“We were a very resource-hungry nation,” says Mike Huffman, chief for the MDC Division of Outreach and Education.

The aggressive harvesting of timber in the Ozarks and the widespread decimation of deer and turkey populations posed a serious problem, according to Huffman. The turnaround, he says, came from a grassroots effort led by a group of sportsmen.

Back then, management of fish and game adhered more to the whim of politicians than to the rigors of science. Taking care of the environment was more of an exercise by the electorate than by biologists. The legislative cycle also handicapped long-range planning. “You can’t manage forests and wildlife from a long-term, sustainable view if your horizon is only the next election,” Huffman says.

The cadre of about 75 hunters and anglers met in Columbia’s Tiger Hotel and formed what is now the Conservation Federation of Missouri. The group wanted to take politics out of wildlife decisions by establishing a conservation commission. In Huffman’s words, it was more of an effort to be “apolitical,” as governmental oversight was still needed in some of its operations. In 1936, 71 percent of Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment that established just that: a four-member bipartisan authority.

The Missouri Department of Conservation sprung from this public vote and is now an ecosystem of its own, with more than 1,400 employees spread across 10 divisions. The agency owns and oversees hatcheries, sanctuaries, refuges and reservations and enforces the state wildlife code on a roughly $173 million annual budget.


A model in funding

Conservation departments around the country, including Missouri, get their funding by collecting fees from hunting and fishing licenses and also receive a proportionate share of a federal excise tax on sporting equipment and other sources, such as boat fuel.

Missouri, however, has an additional robust and residual revenue stream: a voter-approved one-eighth of 1 percent sales tax. The tax has been on the books since 1976 and accounts for more than $102 million of its $173 million budget. Even if you carve out the forestry budget from Missouri’s financial pie, the sales tax still generates a healthy flow of revenue. Arkansas is the only other state with a sales tax that feeds its game and fish commission. “It took us three tries, and it passed in 1996 by an absolutely tiny margin,” says Nancy Ledbetter, chief of communication for the Arkansas agency. “Since then, it has meant over $400 million to our budget.” Game and fish gets 45 percent of the sales tax; state parks get 45 percent, and the majority of the rest goes to the heritage department.

By comparison, Oklahoma, which is nearly identical in square miles to Missouri, has a conservation department that operates on a $50 million budget. “Missouri is doing a great job and has a great reputation,” says Micah Holmes of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Each state has a little wrinkle that other states do not have; equivalent departments may be titled “conservation” or “gaming” or “wildlife.” However, a trend has been to steer away from the notion of only hunting and fishing-only organization. Oklahoma has a few unique features of its own. One example is its rich resources below ground; its conservation department receives $2.5 million a year from agriculture and oil leases.

One advantage of sales tax revenue can be seen in the Missouri department’s ability to market its own success and brand. The MDC outspends Oklahoma’s agency more than 5.4:1 on public outreach and education. “Our counterparts in Missouri [Education Division] are among the best in the nation in producing magazines, websites and PSAs,” Holmes says. Each month, the MDC distributes 560,000 free copies of Missouri Conservationist magazine to Missouri residents and makes the publication available to 13 countries. It also sends out another 180,000 free copies of its children’s magazine, Xplor.

Huffman is quick to dismiss any allegations that MDC’s large budget means it isn’t responsible with taxpayer dollars. He points out that MDC has about the same number of employees as the Columbia Public School District while overseeing millions of acres. “People think we are the wealthiest, but we’re not,” he says. “It’s not the size of the budget but the stability and predictability of our budget that contributes to our success.”

Huffman says the department predicted downturns that were coming in the late 2000s and proactively trimmed staffing by 12 percent, mostly through normal attrition. He adds that sales tax proceeds don’t fluctuate much, which provides more certainty in department planning.

When it comes to managing large budgets, one can look west. California is the largest state, behind Texas, in the lower 48 with nearly 164,000 square miles of land and water. The operating budget of its Department of Fish and Wildlife is $366 million, and the agency employs more than 2,500 people (including part-time help). Again, it’s difficult to compare budgets because of the varied responsibilities between state agencies. For instance, in California poaching can be a big problem, so its department allocates more than $71 million for law enforcement. In contrast, Missouri spends around $16 million on conservation agent activities.

“Water is our challenge right now,” says Andrew Hughan, information officer for the upper third of the Golden State. “We have several departments that manage water, and right now they are busy fighting a massive drought.”

Hughan says there is a proposal on the table in which some jurisdictions could fine homeowners $500 for wasting water. “The current drought is affecting our wildlife,” he says. “We have seen animals coming into areas they normally don’t. The other night a bear walked into a Little League game.”

Although Missouri’s agency doesn’t deal with encroaching bear populations, it has spent a good portion of its outreach budget on informing the public about proposed amendments to its wildlife code. Important to the department is an effort to curtail the danger of chronic wasting disease among deer. The MDC began gathering public comment this summer across the state on proposals to ban the importation of live white-tailed and mule deer and change fencing standards for captive-deer facilities. Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a bill in July that would have added captive deer to the definition of “livestock” in Missouri law. The bill would have placed such deer under the control of the Missouri Department of Agriculture rather than the MDC. The veto wasn’t welcomed by deer breeders and operators of fenced-hunting ranches, who would rather be regulated by agricultural officials to avoid the stiffer rules proposed by a wildlife agency.


A model in organization

The Missouri Model illustrates another unique approach to conservation. At the top of the organizational food chain, the federal Department of the Interior oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the Forest Service. The two branches are separated at the state level, with fish under one jurisdiction and trees under another.

Missouri broke that mold years ago.

The MDC early on combined forestry management with fish and wildlife management. The philosophy dates back to the same group of Missouri sportsmen in the 1930s. “They realized there is no separation between trees and wildlife on the landscape,” Huffman says.

Huffman believes that combining these services under one banner allows for a more holistic approach that, in turn, provides a healthier ecosystem. “Let’s say if we clear-cut or single-cut [trees],” he says. “What happens to the birds that migrate to the forest being harvested? Our wildlife biologists and foresters work as a team to address how one action affects all the other parts.”

Holmes says having Forestry Services separated from Wildlife Conservation isn’t an issue in Oklahoma. “We work well with our sister state agencies because we realize that we’re all trying to get to the same place: healthy trees, lands and wildlife,” he says.

In Arkansas, Ledbetter says the Forestry Commission also works in tandem with the Game and Fish Commission but is somewhat of a hybrid. Although the state doesn’t combine departments, the commission, which has nearly 600 employees, hires expertise in several areas. “We employ foresters who work with us on the big picture,” she says, referring to Huffman’s statement about a holistic methodology.

Huffman points to the benefits of Missouri’s merger, such as the Missouri Ozark Forest Ecosystem Project. The effort looks at how logging and other activities affect everything from vegetation to small mammals and even fungi.


Going forward

The MDC this year has proposed several rules that directly affect the state’s deer hunters. The department hosted more than a dozen meetings throughout Missouri in June and July, which were well attended by the public.

Eric Kliethermes, a deer hunter from Westphalia, Missouri, attended one of the open houses. He praised the department’s transparency with the public, with some restraint. “These meetings are a good first step,” he says. “I just hope at the end of the day they read our comment cards, and it’s not about the almighty dollar.”

He also says the MDC has a key role to play in helping both the hunter and the hunted. “In 2012, we saw 50 to 60 deer lying dead in the field with blue-tongue disease,” he says. “Deer management is more important than deer killing. People need to know that pulling the trigger is the smallest part of hunting.”

Ralph Wilde, also from Osage County, agrees. “I started hunting in the late ’70s, and I remember a doe tag was hard to get,” he says. “You didn’t see a lot of deer, but they [the MDC] have managed it to the point where we are seeing them come around.”

The MDC continues full-steam ahead in influencing the $12 billion economic footprint generated by the state’s fish and wildlife recreation and forest products industry. The Missouri Model has enabled the conservation department to operate on a balanced budget year after year while allowing 1.7 million people to view the state’s rich wildlife. That figure can be compared to another popular sport: pro football. A flier from the MDC states that the number of people who watch wildlife in Missouri each year would fill Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium more than 22 times.

Seems like the MDC can continue to look forward to a sell-out crowd of outdoor enthusiasts for a long time to come.

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