Taxing Issue: Checking Off for Wildlife

Taxing Issue: Checking Off for Wildlife

by Fran Silverman

It’s tax time and while that isn’t the most pleasant deadline to have to meet, there is a way to take a stand for wildlife that can ease the pain of April 15 and protect endangered species.

Dozens of states have a checkoff program that allow taxpayers to donate a portion of either their tax return or their state tax bill to funds that promote wildlife and conservation. And when we say conservation, we mean real conservation efforts, not hunting activities that promote the false notion of conservation.

Colorado was the first state to establish a tax program that became known as the “chickadee checkoff,” introducing it on state tax returns in 1977. Now more than 30 states offer wildlife checkoffs raising more than $7 million: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. (California also has a checkoff fund for sea otters as well.)

But now, wildlife checkoff boxes are competing with a plethora of other causes on state tax returns. At least 40 states have a wide variety of programs that residents can donate to ranging from breast cancer to veteran’s programs. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that the tax checkoff programs have doubled from 220 in 2003 to 413 in 2016.

In Colorado, the fund is still widely popular, with residents choosing it as the number one fund to donate to over 20 other options on their returns. Last year, Coloradans contributed more than $180,000 to the wildlife preservation efforts through the fund. 

Donations support conservation efforts for black-tailed, white-tailed and Gunnison prairie dogs, bats, boreal toads, Gunnison sage-grouse, black-footed ferrets and Arkansas darters.

The fund also supports ongoing work that includes conservation and assessment of the white-tailed ptarmigan as well as surveillance monitoring of Colorado’s bat and Canada lynx populations.

Minnesota and Nebraska only offer a checkoff program for wildlife. In 2016, more than 52,000 Minnesota residents, representing 1.4 percent of all filers, contributed to the checkoff program, raising more than $900,000. Since 1998, taxpayers in Minnesota averaged about $1 million a year in donations.

The fund in Minnesota has been credited with helping to restore its trumpeter swan population, which had been declared extirpated in the 1980s. Donations helped wildlife officials acquire trumpeter swan eggs from wildlife refuges in other states, rear them and release them back into the wild. The trumpeter swan population in Minnesota is now near 17,000.

In Nebraska, donations have been used to protect river otters, monarch butterflies, swift fox, peregrine falcons and bald eagles.

In Maine revenues from the wildlife income tax checkoff program have been used to protect piping plovers and bald eagles, whose population grew from 29 pairs to more than 600. But donations have dropped from $115,794 in 1984 to $33,751 in 2009, a 71 percent decrease.

In Friends of Animals’ home state of Connecticut residents have donated more than $1.3 million to the wildlife income tax checkoff fund since it was first established in 1993. More than 11,000 residents donated to the fund that first year, raising $69,751 and by 1997, the fund reached a high of $89,402 with 13,431 residents contributing. But donations have steadily decreased as other checkoff programs were established in the state. In 2017, residents contributed $45,484, while program expenses reached $64,382.

The tax checkoff revenue in Connecticut has been used to fund the monitoring of ospreys, installation of monofilament fishing line recycling receptacles to mitigate the dangerous effects of fishing debris on wildlife, birds and aquatic life as well as the monitoring and protection of bald eagles and rattlesnake dens to prevent disturbance and illegal collection of the species. Additionally, the funds have been used to study heavy metal contamination of snapping turtles and preservation of chimney swift roosts.

While state environment and natural resources agencies continue to cater to the decreasing number of hunters from which they earn dwindling revenue from licenses and permits, wildlife advocates can send a message by donating to true wildlife preservation programs through their state income tax checkoff programs.

For more information about your state taxes checkoff programs, contact your state wildlife agency and the State Department of Revenues, expenses and the programs funded by the checkoff.