Sportsmen are important in ways that elude much of society, but not the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife director.
Hunters and anglers boost city and rural economies. They champion habitat protection that benefits critters everyone enjoys.
And WDFW Director Phil Anderson knows sportsmen are the heart that pumps life into wildlife management.
Birdwatchers, for example, outnumber hunters and anglers by many millions according to national surveys, but they contribute a proportional pittance.
When Anderson put out word that he would make a presentation in Spokane Tuesday night regarding the Fish and Wildlife Department’s status in the state budget crisis, it was no surprise that mostly hunters and anglers filled the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council auditorium to listen.
Washington sportsmen already pay excise taxes on hunting and shooting gear as well as on fishing tackle and boating equipment to fund wildlife conservation and provide public access to lakes, rivers and wildlife areas.
In addition, they buy different state licenses, tags or punch cards for nearly every move they make in pursuit of fish and game. For example, I spent $223 on Washington hunting and fishing licenses and drawing fees in 2010, not to mention many times that figure to hunt or fish as a nonresident in Montana, Idaho and Oregon.
Nevertheless, Anderson explained how the current state budget crisis left him little option but to ask sportsmen to pay more.
Here’s the kicker: The sportsmen at the meeting were generally receptive.
The director spoke to the group just hours after Gov. Chris Gregoire had delivered the State of the State address with some of her proposals for dealing with a staggering $4.6 billion shortfall.
The Fish and Wildlife Department’s share of that burden this time around totals about $25 million, which translates into meat off the bone following cuts that gnawed away any fat, Anderson said.
“The gravity of the economic challenges this state is facing has become even more daunting in the past few months,” Anderson said.
The agency already had cut $30 million to $40 million to balance its $348 million budget in the last biennium. It shed 110 positions to leave the agency at about 1,400 employees, most of whom had to take 10 unpaid furlough days.
To prevent closures of fish hatcheries or other services important to anglers and communities, agency officials are proposing an increase in most hunting and fishing licenses fees, although some would be reduced.
For example, a resident bighorn sheep tag could increase from $122 to $322, an elk tag up from $45 to $57 and a fishing license up from $26 to $29.50, while a youth or senior deer tag would drop from $23.60 to $21.80.
A state lands pass of some sort is being considered to get non-hunters to pay their share for using sportsmen-funded access sites to lakes, rivers and recreation lands.
Spokane-area sportsmen offered additional suggestions. For example:
• Raising the price of a spike-only elk tag could cause some hunters to balk, but an additional charge for drawing a highly valued branch-antlered bull permit might garner support.
• Washington’s nonresident freshwater fishing license fee should be raised, considering it’s more than 40 percent lower than neighboring states.
• Fines for poaching and trespassing should be increased.
Anderson and his staff took notes on the sportsmen’s suggestions. He graciously accepted all of the group’s advice and criticism. Everything would be considered, he said.
But in the end, the agency can only offer proposals. The Legislature that will make the call.
Drawing the most vocal opposition from sportsmen was discussion of the governor’s proposal to dissolve the Fish and Wildlife Department. Gregoire proposes merging WDFW into a mega-agency including Parks and Recreation and other smaller agencies with a director appointed by the governor.
Sportsmen said that proposal has been thoroughly debated in past decades: Whatever minimal savings would be achieved would be offset by the politicization of fish and wildlife management.
Anderson said sportsmen will need to make that position clear to their legislators.
And asking for any bill that increases fees will be a “heavy lift” in this legislative session, he acknowledged, including asking for extending the 10 percent hunting-fishing license surcharge that expires in June.
“We’re all mindful of what people said about fees and taxes in the last election,” he said.
“On the other hand, it’s not an acceptable outcome for me as a director as well as a hunter and fisherman to see some of these programs disappear when I know they will impact sportsmen, communities and wildlife.”
Contact Rich Landers at 459-5508 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.