Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund and its Impact on Iowa’s Natural Resources

By Steve Weisman

“Your License Dollars-YOUR LEGACY.” This statement sums up the impact that fishing, hunting and trapping license sales have for outdoor enthusiasts in Iowa. That’s right, 100 percent of license fees goes directly to the Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund, which is managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and spent exclusively for fish and wildlife-related research, education, management and expansion of natural resource opportunities in Iowa. Even more importantly, since an amendment to the Iowa Constitution in 1996, the fund is constitutionally protected so that the license dollars cannot be used for any other purpose. For Iowans, I’d say this is pretty powerful stuff! However, until recently, I didn’t realize the potential of just how powerful this could be. First, though, let’s look at the Trust Fund history and what fishing, hunting and trapping license sales really mean to Iowans.

Trust Fund history
The account was first established in 1937 to manage and regulate Iowa’s wildlife and fishery resources. The Trust Fund is comprised of all fees from hunting, angling, and trapping licenses and from the sale of habitat fees. These state license fees, paid by outdoor recreationists, provide matching funds for federal excise tax receipts from nationwide hunting and angling equipment sales. These federal funds are administered to the states by the US Fish and Wildlife Service through its formula-based federal aid programs (Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson) and deposited into the Trust Fund. This federal aid averages approximately $9 million, annually. The Trust Fund also houses Boat Registration Fees, which are earmarked toward boating recreation, navigational safety and aquatic invasive species control as outlined in Iowa Code.

As mentioned earlier, in 1996, an amendment to the Iowa Constitution was passed to protect the Trust Fund from being raided. The amendment was passed with a vote 88 percent in favor, a pretty resounding statement by voters to legislators to leave this fund alone.

What the Trust Fund Means to Iowans
When you look at it, the Trust Fund means everything to outdoor enthusiasts. Until this point, however, I think I was like most Iowans, who pretty much felt that you had to be involved in fishing, hunting and trapping to reap the benefits from the Trust Fund. On the contrary!

Greg Drees, chair person of the Natural Resource Commission, a group of seven citizens appointed by the governor to set policy, adopt administrative rules and hear appeals in contested cases related to fish, wildlife, conservation law enforcement, park and forestry programs, believes that the fund is for all Iowans. “You don’t have to be an angler, hunter or trapper to realize the benefits from The Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund. It’s for all outdoor enthusiasts from bird watchers, to hikers to bikers…all nature lovers. With the matching federal funds from Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson, the license dollars are increased greatly. I believe that the more people learn about the positive impact these dollars have for promoting and enhancing our natural resources, the more they will be willing to buy licenses.”

Drees continued, “The best part is that this is not a tax, not a fee or an additional levy. It is simply giving people the chance to enhance our natural resources.”
Joe Larsheid, Chief of the Fisheries Bureau, added, “This is the public’s trust fund. It can only be used for fish and wildlife management. I really believe that people in Iowa see the importance of Iowa’s resources and that they want to do better. You don’t have to be a hunter, fisherman or trapper to buy a license. Most importantly, the money goes to the trust fund that in turn is used to improve habitat and water quality.”

It’s up to us
Twice in the past three years outdoor enthusiasts have had the chance to participate in a series of public forums held by the DNR to discuss and give input about the fish and wildlife management practices in the Hawkeye state and ways in which their license dollars might be spent. Each time all of the ideas were collected and compiled into a statewide list and used to help shape how our license dollars are allocated and the legacy Iowans hope to leave for future generations. The most recent public forums took place over a four-week period between mid-May and mid-June.

Key questions included the following:
What is currently going well for fishing, hunting and trapping in Iowa? What are your favorite activities or initiatives supported by your license dollars? [strengths]

What do you perceive as the roadblocks/threats to the future of hunting, fishing and trapping in Iowa, today as well as 5-10 years and beyond? [threats]

What, if anything, do you think the DNR in partnership with hunting, fishing, and trapping recreational users and conservation groups should be doing to grow participation and conservation of natural resources in the next 5-10 years and beyond?

I personally attended the public forum held in late May at Fort Defiance State Park south of Estherville. A total of 75 outdoor enthusiasts were there to share their thoughts on these three questions. It was a great atmosphere that night as concerned people gave their input. One of the topics discussed that night and at other sites across the state was the ever-looming threat of budget cuts. This makes the Trust Fund more important now than ever before. This, of course, led to the topic of raising cost of buying a license, but that also brought concerns about how this might cause license sales to drop.

A friend, Dick Lineweaver of Arnolds Park, and I discussed the idea later. He made a great point to me: “Steve, just think how much money we could generate if everybody bought a license (fishing, hunting or trapping). They don’t have to use it, but the impact of buying the license is really powerful when you consider that for every license dollar generated, three dollars is matched through federal funds.” The next day Dick bought his wife, Linda a fishing license and also his granddaughter. That led me to buy my wife a fishing license for the first time in several years.

To me, his idea really makes sense. No tax, no special fee, no assessment. No, I guess you could call it a donation that brings a 3:1 ratio for every dollar generated through fishing, hunting and trapping licenses. Let’s take a look at some of the ways license dollars have been used over the years.

License dollars at work (Iowa DNR data)
World Class Walleye Production 
Iowa is considered a national leader for its innovative walleye hatchery research, and currently produces and stocks around 150 million walleyes annually across the state. These stockings have produced premier walleye fisheries in lakes and interior streams.

Brown Trout Explosion 
Brown trout have a self-sustaining population in 34 northeast Iowa streams. In fact, wild brown trout are now the source of DNR hatchery eggs, eliminating the need for domestic browns at hatcheries. The number of self-sustaining streams is partly due to partnerships with private landowners who improved water quality through land practices.

Turkey Turn-around 
Wild turkeys were nonexistent in Iowa until 1966 when the DNR released eastern wild turkeys in areas of southern Iowa with good turkey habitat. As populations began to flourish, the DNR trapped and relocated turkeys to similar habitat areas around the state. Today, Iowa has an excellent turkey population and 50,000 turkey hunters who passionately pursue this elusive game each spring and fall.

Wildlife Restoration 
Iowa is home to several wildlife restoration successes. From 16 river otters released at Lake Red Rock in the 1980s, river otters can now be found in every county, thanks to help from fur-harvesters who helped trap and move animals.  The deer population in 1936 had dwindled to only 500 and 700 statewide. Managing the deer herd through habitat and regulation has been key to bringing back this trophy animal, making Iowa a destination state for deer hunters. Other species restored to Iowa include trumpeter swans, peregrine falcons and giant Canada geese.

Lake Restoration 
Lakes with decent water quality contribute to a higher quality of life, local economic development and increased property values. To date, Iowa has completed seven lake restoration projects, with 26 more underway and 11 in the planning stages. License dollars are leveraged through habitat development and improved access on these lakes. Iowa anglers experience excellent fishing within two to three years of completion of these projects, with benefits lasting at least 50 years.

Final Thoughts
Those are just a few of the many projects made possible by our license dollars. Your License Dollars-YOUR LEGACY! Sure makes sense, doesn’t it? The key to getting more Iowans involved lies with you and me! We need to spread the word, to tell our relatives and friends about the Trust Fund and the impact their dollars could have on our natural resources. Let’s see what we can do!