DNR staff highlight need for license fee increase
THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn.—A small audience gathered Thursday night in Thief River Falls to hear area and regional staff from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources make their case for increasing hunting and fishing license fees.
Doug Franke, area wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Thief River Falls, led the presentation. Other DNR staff on hand were Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minn.; Pat Znajda, District 1 enforcement supervisor; John Williams, Northwest Region wildlife supervisor, Bemidji; and Becky Ekstein, Thief River Falls assistant area wildlife manager.
The info session wasn't a public meeting, as such, but instead was set up for area sportsmen's group. The Pembina Trail Toms chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation hosted the presentation.
The half-dozen sportsmen who attended also had an opportunity to ask questions about the proposal during the informal presentation.
Franke used a Powerpoint presentation filled with charts and graphs to explain the need for a fee increase. Without the influx of new money, the DNR's Game and Fish Fund is expected to go into the red by June 2019 and be more than $7.3 million in the hole by June 2021.
"We're basically going to call this a 'lights-on' bill," Franke said. "It gives us funding to keep everything current we have now and not lose anything."
The Game and Fish Fund is a dedicated account primarily funded by hunting and fishing license dollars and federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment.
"It's literally how we fund the fish and wildlife program and a large chunk of enforcement funding,' Franke said.
As time goes on, when incoming money stays flat and more money goes out, the fund depletes.
Franke said the DNR is working to keep costs in check by holding positions open and cutting back on fieldwork such as creel surveys and other management efforts. At the same time, though, operating costs have increased, and emerging issues such as flooding, wildlife diseases and invasive species have diverted existing resources.
The DNR's Northwest Region alone is down nine wildlife positions that aren't being filled, and enforcement has 20 vacancies across the state, increasing the time it takes for conservation officers to respond to incidents and curbing their ability to enforce the state's game and fish laws.
"When we start losing those staff, the phone, trust me, it doesn't get picked up quite as often or quite as quickly," Franke said. "It hurts, and we try to respond as much as we can, but it slows everything down.:
Williams, the DNR wildlife supervisor, said even with a fee increase, he won't be able to fill open positions. At best, he'll maintain the status quo.
"Those are the kind of positions we're having to make right now," he said. "It's a big deal."
Statewide, Williams said there are 26 vacancies in wildlife and another 17 in fisheries.
The Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, generated by proceeds from the Minnesota State Lottery, can't be used as a substitute for traditional, license-generated funding but can only supplement existing work. Ditto for Legacy Amendment dollars generated by the small sales tax increase Minnesota voters approved in 2008 dedicating funding for natural resources, parks and the arts, Franke said.
"It's one of those funds we have access to quite a bit of money but it can't replace what we're doing" with traditional license revenue funds, he said. "And if you have fewer staff, trying to implement contracts in the field becomes difficult. You can't ask for funding you have a difficult time spending."
The DNR's message: Hunters and anglers will lose.
Among the increases the DNR is proposing are the following:
• Individual angling licenses would increase from $22 to $25.
• Nonresident annual fishing licenses would increase from $45 to $51.
• Resident deer licenses would increase to $34 from the current $30.
• Nonresident deer licenses would increase to $185 from the current $165.
The increase, which would result in an estimated $6.1 million in new fishing license revenue and $2.8 million in new hunting license revenue, would stabilize the Game and Fish Fund into the year 2021, the DNR estimates. That, in turn, would allow the DNR to better manage fish and wildlife populations and do necessary habitat work on the state's 1,400 wildlife management areas.
Across the board, the increase is about 12 percent.
For context, Franke said a $25 fee to fish for a whole year and $34 to hunt for the season is a good deal compared to spending $33 for a Twins game, $50 to $185 for a Vikings game and $43 to $115 for a Minnesota Wild hockey game.
"Hunting and fishing is a pretty cheap date out there right now," he said. "It's a pretty good deal. It's important to us that we provide a fee-type service to people that's competitive. It's important people get the best bang for their buck. We're not in the high end of things by any means."
The proposal hinges on approval by the Minnesota Legislature, and if it fails to pass, the DNR says, there will be consequences.