- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 3, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin wildlife officials proposed raising hunting and fishing fees Tuesday to generate more money for habitat management, fish stocking and wardens as hunter participation continues to decline.

The current state budget required the Department of Natural Resources to compile options for pumping more dollars into the agency’s Fish and Wildlife Account. The fund, generated mostly with hunter and angler license fees along with federal grants, pays for a wide array of wildlife management projects and DNR law enforcement work.

The agency released a report Tuesday to satisfy the budget mandate. The report found an annual gap of $4 million to $6 million between revenue in the account and authorized spending levels.

The report attributed the gap in part to a four-decade decline in gun-deer hunting and the ensuing loss of license revenue, a 15-year decline in small game license sales and a 14 percent drop in turkey stamp sales since 2009. More people are choosing to do other things rather than hunt, largely because of lack of access to private land and a perception of crowding on public land, the report said.

The revenue gap has resulted in the agency holding vacancies open, acquiring easements to fewer miles of trout stream banks, fewer fish surveys that result in less information for setting regulations and managing fish populations, fewer warden patrols, less staff to collaborate with conservation groups and less frequent wetland drawdowns and manipulations, resulting in less habitat for waterfowl, the report said.

If trends continue, the agency may have to reduce pheasant stocking by 50 percent, scale back habitat management and fish stocking, and limit enrollment in the deer management assistance program, in which DNR biologists help landowners manage local deer, the report said.

The report offers a host of options for bolstering revenue. Chief among them is raising hunting and fishing license fees. Lawmakers haven’t raised those fees in a decade or longer depending on the type of license.

Legislators could raise license fees every two years according to the rate of inflation, the report said. The first adjustment would raise the cost of a state resident gun-deer license from $24 to $28 and a resident fishing license from $20 to $23 and generate as much as $10.2 million, the report found. Lawmakers also could opt for a one-time increase, although the report doesn’t say how much.

Other options include standardizing discounts for junior and senior licenses; eliminating or reducing discounts for first-time license buyers; guaranteeing a person would never pay a higher license fee as long as he buys a license every year; and creating a registration fee for canoes, kayaks and paddleboards.

The report doesn’t recommend one option over another.

Raising fees presents a political risk for Republicans who control the Legislature. The report mentions that 17 states have raised hunting and fishing fees since 2013 and Wisconsin’s gun-deer license is currently $11.58 less than the average cost in Midwestern states. Florida and Alabama have already tied their license fees to inflation, the report added.

The report also notes that attendees at five of the Conservation Congress’ last six spring hearings have passed questions asking about fee increases. The congress is a group of influential sportsmen who advise the DNR on policy.

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which works to protect hunting, trapping and other outdoor activities, said the group supports fee increases. They haven’t gone up in more than a decade and hunters and anglers will accept paying more if the money goes to wildlife management and law enforcement, he said.

The report now goes to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which will consider it as it revises Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017-19 state budget. Bob Delaporte, a spokesman for committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, said Darling’s office had just received the report and was reviewing it. A spokeswoman for the other committee co-chair, Rep. John Nygren, didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Tom Evenson, a spokesman for Gov. Scott Walker, said it would be “premature” to comment since the governor is currently crafting the next budget.

Republican Rep. Joel Kleefisch, chairman of the Assembly’s natural resources committee, said he doesn’t support any fee increases and the DNR should instead work to recruit more hunters and anglers. Legislators should open “every inch” of state-owned land to hunting and fishing, he added.


Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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