Montana hunters and anglers could pay higher fees in the future, including senior citizens and youngsters who now receive licenses at a discount.
Those ideas were among the possible ways to increase funding for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks as revenues have declined steadily over the past two years due to a "perfect storm" of events.
They include a national economic downturn, a severe winter that reduced the number of licenses for sale in much of Eastern Montana, high water in the spring that cut the number of fishing licenses sold, high fuel costs, the perception of a statewide decline in game numbers from wolf depredation, high unemployment and a decrease in the number of nonresident license sales.
Perhaps most important, there are fewer hunters and anglers buying licenses in Montana and nationally.
The decline has averaged around $2 million a year for the past two years and the loss is projected to continue into 2012, according to Sue Daly, the department's finance division administrator, who broached the subject with the FWP Commission at its monthly meeting Thursday in Helena.
"We're now at the point where we need to deal with this," Daly said.
Residents last saw license fee increases in 2005. Nonresident fees were raised in 2001, except for hunters who saw an increase after passage of Initiative 161 in 2011. Nonresident fees pay for about two-thirds of FWP's $35 million in annual operating costs; the rest comes from resident licenses. Another $11 million in license sales is earmarked for specific funds.
"We need to make a substantial move to equalize that (nonresident vs. resident) equation," Commissioner Ron Moody said. "I'm just putting the cards on the table."
Daly said that by 2015, the department's savings account will be drained, but that's no surprise. The department has slowed the expected decline by a couple of years with conservative fiscal management including more video conferencing and using fewer three-quarter-ton pickup trucks that gulp fuel.
In all, the department will have to come up with a projected $10 million a year in savings and revenue increases.
The reason for bringing up the issue now is that legislation will be crafted this spring to present to the 2013 Legislature. If fee increases are proposed and eventually passed, they won't show up in FWP's coffers until 2015.
One possible revenue increase is easy to find. Daly noted that the state gives away about $3 million worth of licenses a year through discounts to senior citizens, youths, former Montana residents and veterans. Although they are all worthy causes, there is an expense involved, she said.
Bob Gilbert, executive director of Walleyes Unlimited, told the commissioners that as a senior citizen, he'd be willing to pay more.
"There's something really wrong with this picture," he said. "It's nice to be generous, but you can't give away money you don't have."
Gilbert said he's also concerned that sportsmen's money is going to manage predators like grizzly bears and wolves -- programs that don't pay for themselves.
"The bison plan -- who the hell is paying for that?" he asked.
Ben Lamb, of the Montana Wildlife Federation, suggested the state consider ways to tap others, besides hunters and anglers, to fund the state's wildlife programs.
"You need to involve everyone who has a stake in this: the natural resources community as well as ranchers and landowners," he said.
Commissioner Moody agreed, adding that some way to tap tourists visiting the state to view wildlife would be helpful.
"None of those folks pay a cent to fund the wildlife, unless they buy a hunting or fishing license," Moody said. "We need to confront that."