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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington hunting, angling fee increase fails; WDFW faces $7 million deficit

Mark McClean searches for deer in a foggy field near Mount Spokane on Nov. 15, 2019. A bill that would have increased hunting and angling fees for the first time since 2011 was not approved by the Washington Legislature. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

A bill that would have increased hunting and angling fees for the first time since 2011 was not approved by the Washington Legislature.

At the same time, a request for more general fund money to back fill a structural funding deficit in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s budget was not fully funded.

The bill’s failure, combined with less general fund money, leaves WDFW facing a budget crisis.

“We thought we were in a spot that this Legislative session would have stabilized the department,” said Nate Pamplin, WDFW’s policy director. “So it’s really disappointing to be in a position to reduce or eliminate services.”

WDFW is facing a $31 million budget shortfall stemming from three things: Funding via general-fund taxes and recreational license sales has not kept pace with costs; a one-time funding fix approved by the Legislature in 2017 expires in June; and the department is still recovering from budget cuts from the Great Recession.

WDFW’s entire budget request was $60 million, with a quarter of that money coming from license fee increases and the remainder coming from the state’s general fund.

The Legislature did give WDFW $24 million in one-time general fund money, Pamplin said. That means the department, which is tasked with managing and preserving Washington’s wild animals and habitat, still has a $7 million budget shortfall.

Programs or services that may be impacted include investment in conservation habitat, hatchery improvements, expanding fishing opportunities, hunting access improvements and wildlife area enhancements, including expanded law enforcement.

Pamplin said WDFW is in the process of assessing the fallout of the bill’s failure.

Layoffs are possible.

“We are going to do everything we can to try and minimize layoffs,” he said. “$7 million is a significant amount of money to try to cover.”

In addition to increasing user fees, WDFW also asked for a permanent reauthorization of the Columbia River salmon and steelhead endorsement. That also failed. Anglers will need the endorsement through June 30, after which time it will expire. The endorsement brought in $3.3 million every two years.

The department submitted its proposed budget in October. Part of the funding fix would have come from a 15-percent increase in hunter and angler fees, which groups like the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council supported.

About 25 percent of WDFW’s original budget request would have come from fees.

WDFW’s proposed budget was built on the recommendation of a citizen Budget and Policy Advisory Group, and was developed after the department was reviewed by a third party which determined WDFW’s management and policies were not creating the deficit.

Gov. Jay Inslee released his budget in December, which addressed the $30 million structural deficit and included substantial investments in orca and salmon recovery.

However, the governor’s proposed 2019-21 budget did not fund the $12.9 million WDFW requested to enhance fish and wildlife conservation and $4.2 million for habitat improvements. Inslee did request $1.1 billion in funding for orca recovery.

In February, a diverse group of outdoor enthusiasts, ranging from hunters to environmentalists, including the Spokane-based INWC and Lands Council, lobbied lawmakers in Olympia to fully fund WDFW.

But, as the bill advanced a number of amendments were added.

“That bill had amendments attached to it that changed it in such a way that we were not happy with,” said Wanda Clifford, INWC’s executive director.

For example, under one Senate amendment, angler fee increases would have been phased out after six years. Hunters had no such sunset clause.

“I guess there is a little bit of disappointment in our eyes that things got moved around so bad that they just decided to throw it out,” said David Cloe, the former president of the INWC and a member of the budget advisory group.

Additionally, fishing management decisions including a salmon fishing closure and commercial gillnetting on the Columbia River angered many and divided support.

“A lot of our constituents are concerned about making sure there are actually fish available to be caught when they pay for this new, more expensive license,” Rep. Drew Stokesbary (R-Auburn) said during a house appropriations committee on April 22.

In a bright spot, money was allocated to orca recovery work identified in the Governor’s Orca Recovery Task Force.

“We are extraordinarily grateful that the legislature followed Gov. Inslee’s lead to begin urgently-needed contingency planning if federal agencies decide dam removal is necessary to restore our salmon and orcas,” said Sam Mace, Inland Northwest program director for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, in a news release.

More than $700,000 will go to studying how farmers and others would fare if the four lower Snake River dams were breached.

And the Legislature approved and reapproved capital budget funding to the tune of $53.1 million and $58 million, respectively, Pamplin said. That money has specified uses and can’t be used to fix the structural deficit.

“Much of that goes toward hatchery projects and capital investments,” he said.

At the same time revenue from the federal Pittman-Robertson taxes on shooting and hunting equipment is projected to drop by $2.4 million in the coming year, Pamplin said.

WDFW’s budget shortfall is a problem that may do long-term damage, Pamplin said. Washington is the smallest Western state, with the least public land and the largest population.

In a statement, Conservation Northwest Executive Director Mitch Friedman pointed out that the department’s general fund allotment is less than it was in 2008.

“One of the worst parts of this continued underfunding is that the threatened species and habitats most in need of attention will face further cuts,” he said in a release. “From sharp-tailed grouse to Canada lynx, animals identified under State Wildlife Action Plans need more resources, not less, and they don’t have time to wait for Olympia.”

Mike Petersen, the executive director of the Spokane-based Lands Council, supported the fee increase even after the changes. An adequately funded WDFW would have meant habitat enhancement in northeast Washington and better staffing, particularly for wolf issues.

“Certainly we’re happy that some of the orca bills passed,” he said. “But there are a lot of wildlife in our region that needs help too.”