The Ohio Division of Wildlife is seeking its first increases in fees for hunting, fishing and trapping licenses and permits in 10 years as part of Gov. Bob Taft's $49 billion, two-year budget proposal.
If approved as proposed, the plan calls for increasing the annual hunting or fishing license fee for resident adults, the mainstay of license buyers, from the current $15 to $19 a year. The increases would go into effect March 1, 2004, the beginning of the 2004-2005 license-year.
At the same time, a deer or wild turkey permit would go from $20 to $24, and a furtaker's permit or a wetlands habitat [duck] stamp each would go from $11 to $15. A youth hunting license would increase from $8 to $10.
Based on the sales of some 1.8 million licenses and permits in 2002, the increases would add about $6 million a year to division revenues. The division's current annual budget is around $45 million.
“The biggest part of it is the increasing cost of doing business,” summed John Daugherty, manager of Ohio Wildlife District 2 at Findlay. He noted that only once in its 54-year history has the division gone longer without an increase in license and permit fees.
Division administrators in Columbus have sent the five district managers afield in hopes of explaining the division's request and perhaps garnering support from the rank-and-file sportman, who largely funds this user-fee-oriented agency.
Senior citizens who currently are entitled to free licenses and permits would continue to receive them. However, the proposed fee package would charge a reduced rate for future seniors - those born on or after Jan.1, 1938. Those born after that date would have to pay the youth rate, $10, for a hunting or fishing license, and full rates for any additional permits, such as deer or turkey.
The senior-license change would position the division to obtain more federal reimbursement aid. Currently, states are reimbursed from the Pittman-Robertson and the amended Dingell-Johnson funds.
The funds levy federal excise taxes of 11 and 10 percent, respectively, on the sales of all firearms and ammunition, fishing tackle, and certain related equipment. The Wallop-Breaux amendment to D-J a few years ago also allowed a portion of the motor-boat-fuel tax to go toward fisheries programs, based on recognition of the use of boats in fishing.
But P-R and D-J revenues are disbursed back to states based on their license sales, not license issues. So free licenses don't count. The federal reimbursements go to such important expenditures as land acquisition and fishing access.
“We're providing $5.2 million of free licenses to seniors right now,” said Daugherty. Such giveaways, done at the behest of state lawmakers some years ago, sounded good at the time. But with Baby Boomers closing in on seniorhood and with lifespans increasing, the division in the long run could go broke handing out free rides.
“We've done quite a bit of downsizing, but we need to do it [the increase] now,” stated Steve Gray, who took over the reins as chief of wildlife on Feb.1.
Among other things the division has trimmed its staff from 520 to around 450, mainly through attrition and early-retirement buyouts. Daugherty said that the staff is at its lowest number in 20 years.
In the last several years the division has cut its operations, maintenance, and equipment budget by 10 percent, and reduced its vehicle fleet by 10 percent. In the last five to seven years, the division also has consolidated some of its field facilities to reduce overhead.
Nonetheless, the division has acquired 68,000 acres of public hunting and fishing territory in the last 10 years, bringing its land-management total to more than 173,000 acres in 120 state wildlife areas. In short, the attempts to expand public opportunity - Ohio ranks 47th among states in public land per capita - rubs against staff and management cuts.
“I think the support for this is going to be good from the hunting and fishing community,” said Gray. ``They're pretty understanding of the need. We are thankful for the role sportsmen have played in Ohio's wildlife legacy.”
Most of the notable achievements of the division - from improvements in fishing and more public wildlife areas to restoration of bald eagles - can be traced back to license and permit-buyers. “They're always due to sportsmen, who have been willing to pay their way,” the chief said.
Initial response from sportmen's representatives appears encouraging.
“We're supportive of the division of wildlife insuring its financial liability for the future,” said Rob Sexton, vice president for government affairs for the Columbus-based U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance. “There's no question about it, it's been a long time [since an increase].”
Sexton said the division has trimmed staff by 15 percent. “They've done everything they could to get lean.” He also noted that license and permit increases were under discussion last budget; the need is not new.
In a way, Sexton said, the current proposals “are a confluence of bad timing.” He does not regard them as tied to Taft's draconian measures elsewhere, all aimed at filling budget holes.
One such measure, for example, would eliminate the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The wildlife division is one of many arms of the ODNR, which oversees everything from watercraft and parks-and-recreation to gas-and-oil and forestry, among others.