Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources says a $5 million budget shortfall could be fixed temporarily through higher prices for hunting and fishing licenses, new admission charges for non-hunters using natural areas, and new registration fees for paddlers.
A one-time increase in some licenses and smaller annual boosts tied to inflation are alternatives that should be weighed carefully because of their potential to harm state efforts aimed at reversing a decline in hunting, DNR deputy division administrator Eric Lobner said in an interview Tuesday.
The DNR outlined other alternatives that include cuts to wildlife and fish-stocking programs and new efforts to attract more people to hunting and fishing in a report mandated by the Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker.
The department has been scrutinizing other states that have had success in attracting and retaining license buyers, for example, by offering three-year or five-year licences, said Lobner, who authored the report released by the legislative budget committee on Tuesday.
But as purchases of hunting licenses have hit a 40-year low, a longer term solution may involve looking beyond user fees, the report said.
“Options that continue to rely on hunters, anglers and trappers are not long-term fixes,” the DNR report said. “Identifying and servicing the needs of a more diverse and urban society may hold the key to funding fishing and wildlife conservation.”
Scientifically conducted household surveys in 2016 found that a majority of the public would support having everyone pay something for fish and wildlife management, the report said.
It doesn’t recommend specific fee increases needed from hunters, anglers and others.
At least 17 other states have increased fees since 2013, but others collect sales tax or lottery revenue dedicated to wildlife management, the report said.
The Legislature has resisted requests from the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation for higher fees, and Walker has opposed tax or fee increases unless they are paired with decreases in other budget lines.
A leading member of the state Assembly responded skeptically about fee increases on Tuesday, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said members of the upper house would be open-minded.
“When it comes to the fees, most of the members — unless it’s kind of egregious or out of line or doesn’t make much sense — I think people have an open ear, because it is a user fee,” said Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. “There seems to be more willingness to take a look at that.”
The state’s largest organization for hunting, fishing and trapping groups has been pushing several years for higher fees to preserve DNR programs, including stocking fish, law enforcement that prevents poaching and counting deer.
The 46-page DNR report also discusses imposing new fees on so-called silent sports:
- Registration fees could be charged to canoeists, kayakers and paddleboarders to help pay for boat launches. About 18,000 already voluntarily pay an $11 fee, but an estimated 335,000 nonmotorized boats are on the water each year.
- Admission fees could be assessed for use of 600 state wildlife, fishery and natural areas. Hikers, cross-country skiers and others who don’t hold hunting or fishing licenses now benefit from fees without contributing.
Hunting, fishing down
Wisconsin residents hunt and fish at rates higher than most other states, but interest in hunting has declined here as it has in other states. Meanwhile, fees have remained static for at least 10 years, the report said.
The DNR report was compiled in response to a state budget provision calling on the DNR to offer options for filling the deficit. All of the fee increases and most of the other alternatives would require legislative action, Lobner said.
Among the other options the DNR presented are new ways to package and market licenses. Another option that would generate $2.7 million annually would be to end discounts for first-time license buyers. Elected officials put the discounts in place as an incentive in 2012, but the DNR has found that 80 percent of first-time buyers didn’t know the price was discounted.
The fish and wildlife fund deficits have run about $4 million to $5 million annually. Over the last five years, the department has reduced costs by $20 million by cutting habitat management, conservation warden patrols, invasive species controls, fish stocking and other programs, the report says.
Wisconsin’s fish and wildlife programs over many decades have made the state a destination for outdoors enthusiasts who contribute to a multibillion-dollar tourist industry, Lobner said. The state is ranked first in the nation for trophy white-tailed deer and black bear, and also has top-tiered turkey hunting, world-record musky fishing and unique lake sturgeon spear fishing, the report said.
Hunting and fishing licenses pay for 90 percent of fish and wildlife programs.
Fees don’t reflect inflation
A hunting license for a Wisconsin resident has cost $24 since 2005. If it had kept up with inflation, it would now cost $28 and yield an additional $1.6 million for the DNR fish and wildlife fund, the report states. A fishing license, which has cost $20 since 2005, could be increased by $3 to reflect 12 years of inflation and generate an additional $1.4 million.
Higher hunting and fishing fees are long overdue, acceptable to most sportsmen and badly needed to support DNR fish and wildlife programs that have lost dozens of positions in recent years, said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
“We have been supporting it (increased fees) for many years, but the tenor of the Legislature was not to have any increased fees or taxes,” Meyer said.
But the lawmaker who will oversee the Assembly Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage Committee this year questioned the idea of fee increases.
“If we help promote a climate that encourages new hunters and fishermen and women, the revenue shortfall goes away,” said Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc. “Make it easier to hunt and fish.”
Kleefisch suggested eliminating requirements for tagging carcasses, attracting younger hunters, and simplifying rules, including those for hunter safety.
The report comes two years after Walker and the Legislature removed tax support for state parks and increased fees. Walker said he is mulling another park fee boost in the $5 to $10 range.
State Journal reporters Matthew DeFour and Mark Sommerhauser contributed to this article.