The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources continues to make its case for a small increase in hunting and fishing license fees, even though state lawmakers didn’t included the request in budget proposals that have passed the House and Senate floors.
It promises to be an uphill battle.
Gov. Mark Dayton in his budget proposal called for increasing the price of a resident fishing license from $22 to $25 and the price of a resident deer license from $30 to $34.
Nonresident fishing licenses would increase from $45 to $51 under the proposal, while a nonresident deer license would increase from $165 to $185.
By comparison, North Dakota charges $17 for a resident fishing license, $47 for a nonresident fishing license, $30 for a resident deer license and $250 for a nonresident deer license that is mostly limited to archery hunters and nonresident landowners.
The DNR last increased hunting and fishing license fees in 2012 and generally requests fee hikes every six years to keep up with inflation and other operations costs, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said.
Without the increase, Landwehr said, the DNR’s Game and Fish Fund is projected to go into the red in 2019. The account primarily is funded by hunting and fishing license sales.
The DNR by law can’t spend more money than the fund contains so as the balance approaches zero, the agency has to cut back, Landwehr said. That’s why additional funding now is needed to maintain fish and wildlife programs at current levels, he said.
Without the fee hike, the DNR will be forced to make several cuts, including:
- Reducing the workforce by a minimum of 29 people to as many as 40.
- Reduced habitat work on wildlife management areas and limiting WMA access because of an inability to maintain roads. That would be especially apparent on large northwest Minnesota WMAs such as Thief Lake and Roseau River, which have extensive road systems, Landwehr said.
- Fewer deer and other wildlife surveys.
- Walleyes would be stocked in at least 200 fewer lakes, and the DNR only would be able to conduct creel surveys on three lakes. Fisheries assessments that guide management on many lakes also would be scaled back.
In addition, Landwehr said, the DNR’s Parks and Trails Division as of July 1 would have to reduce or eliminate camping in as many as 34 state parks if it doesn’t get a requested $1 increase in daily vehicle permits and $5 increase in annual permits along with some additional monies from the state’s General Fund.
Grant-in-aid programs for snowmobile trails, ATV trails and public water accesses also would be reduced even more than they already have been without additional funding requested through higher registration fees, Landwehr said.
Both the House and Senate bills include money for parks, but not at the level the DNR requested, Landwehr said.
“This is really quite grave,” he said.
Letter of support
In an effort to sway legislative leaders, a coalition of 48 hook-and-bullet groups, including the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, FM Walleyes Unlimited of Moorhead, Lake of the Woods Rod and Gun Club, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, recently sent a letter supporting the fee increases.
“The current level of DNR management activities is less than the minimal amount needed to adequately manage our fish, game and wildlife populations and the habitat in our lakes, lands and rivers,” the letter stated. “Management activities cannot be reduced from current levels without dire consequences for the millions of Minnesotans who rely on these resources for their economic livelihood.”
The Legislature’s reluctance to include the fee hikes in its budget proposals illustrates the irony of the situation, Landwehr said.
“These funds have been demanded by sportsmen because they want the benefits those activities produce like more fish, more wildlife and better management of public lands,” Landwehr said. “The people who have to pay are willing to pay and are asking to be charged more, but the Legislature is not responding to that request.”
Duane Peterson of Bemidji is among several high-profile anglers who support the fee hikes. Now retired, Peterson is a co-founder of Northland Fishing Tackle in Bemidji and a member of the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame.
He recently joined Landwehr on a visit to Bemidji-area media outlets supporting the fee hike proposal.
“I surely think the silent majority of the anglers and the hunters and the people using the park systems, by and large, they’re in support of the DNR and the efforts they put in to give us the outstanding hunting and fishing and opportunities that we have,” Peterson said. “I get the feeling the vast majority of them are in favor of an increase if that’s what it takes to maintain the quality we have and to improve it.”
Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, is among the legislative leaders who received the letter from sportsmen’s groups.
Despite the letter and comments from Hall of Fame fishermen such as Peterson, Al Lindner and fishing guide Tom Neustrom, Fabian said he’s not hearing that same support from average hunters and anglers.
That was noticeably apparent during recent town hall meetings in Roseau, Karlstad and Thief River Falls, Fabian said.
“It was a pretty resounding ‘no’ in the three town halls with regard to the fee increases,” Fabian said.
Part of the frustration, Fabian said, stems from a perception — in northwest Minnesota, at least — that the DNR doesn’t listen to its constituents. He said the House version of the budget bill includes a 40 percent increase in the price of an annual state park vehicle permit, currently $25, and a 20 percent increase in daily vehicle permits that now cost $5.
Parks staff has gotten everything it requested in the last two budget cycles, Fabian said, and yet the DNR continues to reduce services at state parks in his district such as Old Mill, Lake Bronson, Hayes Lake and Zippel Bay.
The DNR could raise revenue by increasing the price of concessions, camping fees and camper cabin rentals, Fabian said, but that isn’t happening.
“To be honest with you, it would be easier to look on some of the stuff they’re asking for, but in spite of getting everything they’ve asked for in the past two budget cycles, they continue to reduce services for our small regional parks, and they don’t have any kind of a plan that they’ve brought to me to change what they’re doing in those parks,” Fabian said. “Before they get any more from the House side, they need to solve that issue.”
Landwehr said House and Senate conferees could add the proposed fee increases in legislation they draft to resolve differences in the respective budget bills, but that’s not likely to happen.
“They can fix any of these problems in that conference committee,” Landwehr said. “My guess is they won’t, and the governor already is pondering what he could do if he thinks the bills aren’t adequate. Then he has the option to veto them, and then we go back to square one.”
Fabian said he couldn’t speculate on whether a conference committee that hasn’t yet been named will take up the fee hikes. Conferees won’t be named until Tuesday, he said.
“We’ll just have to wait and see how that process plays out,” Fabian said. “I think as the weeks progress here, we’re going to have some discussions.”
In the meantime, Landwehr encourages hunters, anglers and other users to call or email their legislators. A “find your legislator” feature is available on the Minnesota Legislature’s website at leg.state.mn.us.
“Not getting those fees could have some very serious impacts for our hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation activities,” Landwehr said. “We will have to reduce the services in all those areas without that funding.”
By the numbers
Here’s a look at some of the key recommendations Gov. Mark Dayton proposed for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in his budget proposal:
- Increase resident fishing licenses by $3, from $22 to $25.
- Increase resident deer licenses by $4, from $30 to $34.
- Increase nonresident fishing licenses by $6, from $45 to $51.
- Increase nonresident deer licenses by $20, from $165 to $185.
- The price of small game licenses, pheasant stamps and state waterfowl stamps wouldn’t change.
- Raise state park vehicle permits by $1 daily and $5 annually, to $6 and $30, respectively.
- Raise ATV registration fees by $5 a year, snowmobiles by $10 a year and boats by $1 to $15 a year, depending on the size of the watercraft.
- Increase cross-country ski passes by $2 daily and $5 annually.
More info: mndnr.gov/support_the_outdoors/index.html
— Brad Dokken