- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - Lawmakers are considering how to plug a $32 million funding gap for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife through a combination of raising hunting and fishing license fees, devoting more state revenues to the department and cutting personnel.

Sales of hunting and fishing licenses have been declining the past 30 years, and static the past decade, despite a growing population. Without an increase for license fees, Fish and Wildlife Director Curt Melcher says the department will have to close some fish hatcheries and the state Fish Hatchery Research Center and lay off more fisheries biologists and other staff to balance its 2015-2017 budget of $345 million.

The department has already eliminated 50 positions, and if license fees aren’t increased, plans to cut 42 more.

But fishermen and hunters are not happy with the idea of raising license fees without better fishing and hunting opportunities.

“Steps must be taken to improve the quality of big game hunting and fishing in the state, and then the customers will return,” Oregon Hunters Association state coordinator Duane Dungannon wrote in an email. “ODFW can’t keep raising prices for a product that’s declining in quality; no business could stay in business for long by doing that.”

The fishing and hunting licenses and tags sold each year cover nearly a third of the department’s current budget, and the general fund covers 5 percent.

The department is looking for a 56 percent increase in revenue from the general fund for the 2015-2017 budget, arguing that it does far more than serve hunters and anglers, and a 10 percent increase in license fees, said Deputy Director Roger Fuhrman..

Rep. Peter Buckley, co-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, says that argument makes sense, but there is not enough money available from the general fund to cover all the shortfall, making license fee increases necessary.

A bill laying out license fee increases over the next six years (SB 247) to ease the sticker shock received strong support in committee testimony this past week from conservation groups and individuals, who did not want to see cuts to programs. The bill has to go through a Ways and Means Committee work session before going to a floor vote.

WaterWatch, a conservation group, submitted formal testimony supporting fee increases, noting that one of the proposed cuts would eliminate three positions that review water development projects for possible harm to fish and rivers.

“There’s already too few people doing this work,” senior policy analyst Kimberly Priestly said. “It would be devastating to Oregon’s rivers and streams if this program is cut.”

The Oregon chapter of Trout Unlimited, a conservation group, also urged passage of the bill, noting that the loss of fish biologists and the Hatchery Research Center would be harmful.

But the prospect of raising license fees is producing a lot of grumbling among the public. Oregonians buy about 243,000 hunting licenses, with non-residents buying another 16,000. Oregonians buy about 500,000 fishing licenses, and non-residents 122,000.

“We are going to have a lot of very cranky people about it,” said Troy Whitaker, a fishing guide and tackle shop owner in Grants Pass, who sells hunting and fishing licenses. “The word I am getting, being a tackle shop owner, is people complain a lot about the Rogue River, saying we used to catch a lot of fish, the hatchery is not doing its job, only putting in so many fish, when they should be cranking out fish like crazy.”

Getting big returns of salmon and steelhead to rivers is more complicated than just releasing more baby fish in the river. Studies have shown hatchery fish do not survive as well in the wild as fish spawned in the river, and hatchery fish that make it back from the ocean are less likely to bite than wild fish. Increasing hatchery releases can also harm wild fish by filling up limited habitat. After several years of favorable ocean conditions producing lots of food for fish, climatic cycles have flipped, making declines in future returns likely.

Melcher attributed the static license sales to a combination of more people living in cities, where they are farther from hunting and fishing, and declining opportunities for success, due to lower deer numbers and more fish off limits to harvest due to wild fish protections.


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