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DNR forced to seek money in license fees

At a recent meeting of the Izaak Walton League in Duluth, Department of Natural Resources employees stood before a room full of hunters and anglers with a simple message: We need more money.

Local fisheries supervisors Deserae Hendrickson and Don Schreiner were there. So was Rich Staffon, DNR area wildlife manager at Cloquet. DNR district enforcement supervisor Todd Manley spoke as well.

They would rather have been managing habitat or snaring poachers. But they were stumping for increased license fees, a provision that's part of Gov. Dayton's budget proposal.

The proposed increases are widely supported by angling and hunting groups state-wide.

"I think anglers and sportsmen in Minnesota have always paid their way, and I think there's strong support for the Game and Fish Fund," said Vern Wagner of Anglers for Habitat, a coalition of angling and conservation groups based in St. Louis Park.

But the increases would require approval by the Legislature, and, to date, key legislators have not indicated an interest in raising fees.

Already, DNR officials say, tight budgets are forcing cutbacks.

"We've been trying to do more with less," Staffon told the Izaak Walton League gathering. "But what we find out is you do less with less."

Statewide, the DNR has about 100 unfilled positions from a staff of about 600. The Enforcement Division is down about 20 positions.

In northeastern Minnesota, the fisheries staff is down 20 to 30 percent, Schreiner said. Wildlife manager positions in the northeast have dropped from eight to five, Staffon said, and wildlife technician positions from eight to four. About two-thirds of coldwater trout production at the French River Coldwater Hatchery has been shifted to the Spire Valley Hatchery near Remer to save money.

At risk, without more money, are activities such as lake and stream surveys, fish trap operations on the Knife and French Rivers, maintenance of Wildlife Management Areas, brushland and wetland habitat work and more, DNR officials said.

"It's really starting to show," said Wagner, with Anglers for Habitat. "We're not getting the lake surveys. We're having a decrease in conservation officers."

Outside help

The DNR hired a consulting firm to explore the license fee issue. As a result, the agency is recommending several new kinds of licenses along with license fee increases. Under the proposal, a resident fishing license would go from $17 to $24. A resident small game license would go from $19 to $22, and a resident deer license would go from $26 to $30.

Increases for nonresident licenses are generally smaller than for resident licenses.

New fishing licenses would include a reduced-price ($12) resident fishing license for 16- and 17-year-olds, a 90-day resident fishing license, a three-day resident angling license (no trout stamp required) and a three-year resident fishing license.

New hunting licenses would include a three-day small-game license (no stamps required) for $19 and a small game license with all stamps included for $37.

Minnesota is well below average among all states in the amount it charges hunters and anglers. Its $17 resident fishing license ranks 36th among all states, and its $26 deer license is below the $33 mean of surrounding and nearby states.

Fishing and hunting contribute $3.6 billion to the state's economy and directly provide about 55,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Legislative opposition

But getting a fee increase through the Legislature, especially this year, may be difficult.

"What we're running into, of course, is a sense from the Legislature that they don't want to see any new fees or taxes," Wagner said. "They're trying to apply this to all places and all things."

The environment bill passed recently by the House of Representatives included no provisions for license fee increases.

"I have an open mind on this issue as we move forward," said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, who is chair of the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee. "We'll see how this session goes. At this point in time, I don't think they (fee increases) are necessary. If the governor shows us that this is the right thing to do, we'll take a look at that proposal at the correct time."

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, thinks now is the time.

"Number one, the funding is needed, whether now or later," Johnson said. "If you wait until later, it's just a bigger hole to dig out of."