A bill that allowed Fish, Wildlife and Parks to raise license fees to generate more revenue was a controversial measure in the last Legislature, but since going into effect in March there seems to be no opposition among hunters and anglers to paying more.
“It doesn’t appear we’ve had any buyer resistance to the license fee increase,” Jeff Hagener, director of the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told the Environmental Quality Council on Thursday.
“And people buying licenses are buying more licenses,” he added.
Halfway through the fiscal year sales of fishing and hunting licenses are tracking close to what FWP estimated in its fiscal note for the legislation. The increase in fees was designed to add $5.7 million to FWP’s annual budget.
Of help to the agency is that hunting and fishing license sales seem to be slowly trending upward after dipping, said Hank Worsech, FWP License Bureau chief. Sales for hunting licenses fell after FWP stopped selling doe deer licenses and cut back antelope licenses in Eastern Montana after steep declines in those animal populations following the severe winter of 2011. That was followed by an outbreak of disease that thinned white-tailed deer numbers in the region.
Earlier this year FWP also saw a small spike in elk license sales after instituting its first late hunt, called a shoulder season, Hagener said. Those shoulder seasons have been expanded to more hunting districts this season, which could further increase license sales.
Also, as out-of-state hunters have returned to Montana, nonresident combination hunting licenses are selling earlier out of concern that there may no longer be a surplus, Hagener said.
New this year for those buying hunting licenses is what’s called a basic hunting license that all hunters must purchase for $10; they are $15 for nonresidents. Other increases under the new legislation included a jump from $750 for nonresident tags for moose, sheep, goats and bison to $1,250. Even with the $500 increase Worsech said there was no decrease in nonresident applications for the permits.
“I don’t think price is a driver for those tags,” Worsech said. “Especially for bighorn sheep. We have record rams coming out of the Breaks. And our prices are still lower than surrounding states.”
Nonresident fishing license fees went up from $60 a year to $86. Resident fishing licenses increased from $18 to $21.
As part of the bill that allowed the increase in fees is a stipulation that license fees be reviewed every four years, allowing the agency to be more agile in responding to increasing operating costs. Previously the Legislature reviewed FWP’s license fee structure every 10 years.
FWP and many sportsmen and women lobbied hard for the increase. About two-thirds of FWP’s funding comes from the sale of fishing and hunting licenses. Even so, the Legislature trimmed FWP’s original request. Without the increase the agency was predicting a deficit of $90 million by 2026.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department was confronted with a similar situation in 2013 as hunting and fishing license sales declined. Unable to convince the Legislature to allow a license fee increase the agency carved more than $6 million from its budget.
Prior to asking for a fee increase Montana FWP cut $1.2 million from its budget, none of which comes from the general fund. Seven percent of the WGFD funding comes from the state general fund. This month WGFD cut another $1.2 million from its budget proposal to the Wyoming Legislature.
Part of the problem that state wildlife agencies like Montana and Wyoming are dealing with is funding nongame projects and the fact that more residents and nonresidents enjoy wildlife yet contribute little or nothing to their management. That’s prompted state wildlife agencies to consider other sources of funding from those who aren’t just hunters and anglers. The problem has been how to acquire those dollars.