It’s been a problem for 10 years and counting, the fact that the protection of fish and wildlife in Maine is poorly funded, said Maine Audubon staff attorney Jennifer Burns Gray.

The work done by state wildlife and fisheries biologists is mostly not funded from tax dollars, some years not at all. A survey conducted for a legislative study last winter showed the public is largely unaware of this.

Gray said in many ways there was never a worse time to be seeking funding for fish and wildlife work here, but she said we’re running out of time.

“It’s never a good time to do it, but it seems to be a fairly critical time at this point,” she said.

This is why the Nature Conservancy has joined the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and Maine Audubon in finding a new way to fund the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which exists largely on the revenue from fishing and hunting license fees.

Expect to hear more about a new solution.

Nontraditional ways of funding natural resource agencies are used elsewhere, including in Missouri, Arkansas and Minnesota.

And a report to the Maine Legislature last winter by IFW, Maine Audubon, the Nature Conservancy and SAM showed strong public support for a better way to fund the state’s fish and wildlife work.

The 18-page report suggested the state’s Constitution be amended to require at least 1/8 of 1 percent of the state sales tax revenues be dedicated to fish and wildlife conservation issues.

“The hope is that we would do something. There will be a new Legislature elected, a new governor, a new administration. Perhaps next year is the right time,” Gray said. “We’re looking at other states as models.”

In the past, new laws created new sources of funding, like the loon plate and the Outdoor Heritage Fund lottery tickets. But Gray said these sources of money are not enough to keep pace with the growing demands on state biologists and the department’s growing budget.

This is why the nonprofits that joined forces are looking around the country for examples of what works, and there are many.

In 2008, voters amended Minnesota’s Constitution to dedicate a small percentage of the state’s sales tax to protect the state’s water, wildlife and cultural heritage.

In 1994, voters in Arkansas passed an initiative that appropriated a portion of the sales tax to fish and wildlife work, which generates as much as $32 million a year.

And in 1976, Missouri voters approved the state’s first statewide tax specifically for conservation purposes.

The question remains for Maine, how do you fund IFW’s $23 million budget when costs are increasing and hunting and fishing license sales are not?

A statewide poll funded by the three nonprofits showed there is public support to do more. A poll of 608 likely voters last year showed that 85 percent agree IFW fills an important role in managing wildlife for fishing and hunting in Maine.

Moreover, 71 percent disagree that in these economic times “we can’t afford to spend money on protecting fish and wildlife habitat.”

“We were surprised at the impact,” said Tom Abello, senior policy adviser for the Nature Conservancy. “The hunting and fishing and sportsmen are really paying the lion’s share of the bill for IFW. But what IFW does is so much broader than that. The idea is how can we protect wildlife habitat for the future when the department is asked to do more?”

It is uncertain how or where this conversation will go — but it’s going to continue, Gray said.

And Abello said the three groups exploring new sources of funding are determined to find a viable solution.

“One thing we may do is put a bill in for next session that would dedicate revenue and protect it in the Constitution,” Abello said. “We’re going to move along that path. To build a coalition of groups that would help us. We’re in the early stages. At the Nature Conservancy (we believe) our natural resources are the bedrock of our quality of life. We need to do something about that broadly.”

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]