Ask any wildlife biologist in your state’s land-management division what his job is and the proud answer is likely the same: “We manage XX thousands of acres on XX wildlife management areas.” It is true that our state wildlife biologists and foresters are charged with managing our WMAs and other public lands. However, based on what I’ve learned, not many Eastern states’ land-management teams cut, mow or otherwise manipulate more than about 1 percent of those acres annually.
The majority of state WMA acreage in the East has matured into climax (i.e., wildlife-empty) forestland in a slow process of unchecked growth that began when most of those lands were first acquired during the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, as of 2012 some 80 percent of those acres have not been touched by a chain saw or bush hog in more than 70 years.
What is happening to our WMAs?
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife admits on its website that in the 1940s the state’s WMAs consisted of 80 percent early-successional habitat and 20 percent mature forest, but now those numbers have been reversed, which explains the corresponding reductions in grouse, woodcock, cottontail and deer populations in those areas.
“Today, 92 percent of MassWildlife’s 90,000 WMA acres is forested,” said William Minior, MassWildife’s chief of Wildlife Lands. “It is estimated that 80 percent of the forest is in saw timber. A maturing forested landscape, coupled with the residential and commercial development of much of the remaining abandoned agricultural land, are [sic] taking a toll on early-successional species.”
Minior noted that a distribution of 10 percent seedling forest, 30 percent sapling/pole and 60 percent saw timber is desired to maintain populations of all native wildlife species. This means there must be at least a 30 percent reduction in the existing forested acres or there will be continued losses in critical early-successional habitat.
Maine is a perfect example of how it costs millions of dollars to manage a few hundred acres of habitat. In 2010 the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife received $4.5 million in Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration funding (a tax on guns and ammo, bows and arrows that is distributed to states based on hunting license sales). That money, along with 25 percent in state matching funds, is to be used “for wildlife habitat purposes” according to John Organ, chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration programs, which oversees P-R fund distribution and projects in each state. But this is where the system breakdown begins. Since 1939 (when Pittman-Robertson funding was first disbursed to the states), Maine has received more than $60 million in P-R funding in addition to various other grants. Where is all that money going if not into its intended purpose of wildlife-habitat manipulation on hunter-funded WMAs?
“Salaries and operating costs,” said John Boland, a regional biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, who admitted that even after more than 70 years of P-R funded operations “only about 20 percent of our WMAs are in younger age classes,” the early-successional growth that is most useful and important to the majority of wildlife species.
Unfortunately, in Maine and other states, funding generated by hunters to purchase and manage state WMAs is poured into salaries for career “research” biologists who, in some cases, spend decades on inconclusive studies resulting in mountains of paperwork, grant applications, program reviews and annual reports but no practical benefit for sportsmen. Also, habitat money is being spent on road construction and maintenance, bridge and culvert installation, building construction and maintenance, boundary marking, trail maintenance, docks, floats—even garbage pickup—and many other non-habitat projects.
According to Maine’s annual report (required by the USFWS of any state that receives P-R dollars), clear-cutting, mowing and other hands-on habitat enhancement work is conducted on fewer than 2,000 acres of the total WMA holdings in the state. Even more disturbing is that while Maine’s WMAs are paid for and maintained only with hunter-generated dollars they are open to a wide spectrum of recreational users including hikers, bikers, horseback riders, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, ATV operators, boaters, bird watchers, fishermen, cemetery visitors and anyone else who chooses to visit these areas—free of charge. Only hunters pay for the purchase and upkeep of these lands, and yet their interests continue to be the least served.
This happens elsewhere, too. For years, Georgia charged hunters a $20 WMA stamp fee to access their own lands while allowing all other uses free access. In 2012, Georgia finally levied a “user fee” for non-hunters, and other states are following suit.
To be clear, the money that is released by the federal government for habitat projects is supposed to benefit birds and animals. If state hunting-license money is used to match those funds, the project must benefit hunted species, not non-game animals, reptiles or insects. Some states don’t use P-R funding because of the paperwork requirements and the difficulty they have in raising their 25 percent match. But every state land manager I talked to said WMAs are purchased with P-R funds plus state funds that come from hunting license money.
Why are so many of our WMA acres sitting idle after 75 years of P-R funding?
Sportsmen do not need and do not benefit from many of the “improvements” and “studies” funded with P-R dollars, yet their money is being used to support these and other projects that, in many cases, benefit only the state employees who requisition them, enabling them to continue to conduct more studies and more surveys, all using P-R funds.
Adding to WMA habitat woes is that as more states make budget cuts they limit the number of dollars available to match P-R grants.
“For each dollar the legislature cuts from our budget we are actually cut $4,” said Delaware biologist Wayne Lehman. “Plus, our license funding is decreasing each year because of a reduction in hunting license sales, which is how P-R figures its funding for us. So, while there might be a lot of P-R funds available we cannot access it because we have no money to match it.”
In his 2010 annual report, Ryan Robicheau, a Lands Management Division biologist in Maine’s Region B, complained, “Funds from the forest harvesting operation on P-R lands are being spent as soon as they accumulate for any eligible expense. In turn the regional staff has been unable to access money for special projects on the WMAs. In addition, the regional staff is not receiving any budgetary information that would enable them to track available amounts each year. A mechanism needs to be implemented that ensures major expenditures needed for the sound management of wildlife-management areas are provided for during the year.”
Some habitat programs on WMAs, designated as “wildlife habitat improvement” projects, actually provide habitat for species that are illegal to hunt.
A recent 65-acre clear-cut on a 5,000-acre Maine WMA was, according to the local forester, designed to create and improve habitat for moths and butterflies, neither of which may be hunted. Certainly a wide variety of species will benefit from any habitat-manipulation program, but P-R requires that the focus of projects conducted on hunter-funded wildlife-management areas be focused primarily on game birds and mammals, projects that would also benefit a wide variety of non-game species, instead of the other way around. In New Hampshire, a recent report by the Fish and Game Department boasted of a new clear-cutting project on a WMA that was presented to the public as benefitting “70 different wildlife species” including, insects, reptiles, songbirds, raptors and other species, 90 percent of which cannot legally be hunted.