An advisory group that has worked about eight months to develop a proposal to raise Montana hunting and fishing license fees struggled to form a unified front at its final meeting on Wednesday in Helena.
At issue is potential opposition from their legislative overseers, the Environmental Quality Council, whose chairman Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, has already indicated a distaste for the fee hikes. On Wednesday the Fish and Wildlife Licensing and Funding Advisory Council members debated ways that their recommendations could be made more palatable.
Under the group’s proposals, about $6.1 million would be raised partially with an $8 fishing license increase and a $10 fee for all hunters. In addition, nonresident fees for moose, goat, sheep and bison would be increased to $1,250 and the age for senior discounts on licenses would go up. Built into the line-item allocations of the new revenue would be a $500,000 fund for uncertainties such as a possible delisting of the grizzly bear or an endangered species designation of the sage grouse. The department would also move from a 10-year funding cycle to a four-year cycle to make budget adjustments easier.
Meetings held by Fish, Wildlife and Parks across the state to discuss the proposals had limited attendance. Of the 88 comments received on the issue, the support was “generally high,” according to Charlie Sperry, FWP recreation management specialist.
“The majority supported the dollar amount increase,” Sperry told the advisory council, although some hunters and anglers complained it wasn’t enough. “They said the margin was too small if there are unintended expenses.”
To be fair to the minority, Sperry said the main concern was the cumulative effect of license increases, especially for families.
The public also supported the idea of asking nonconsumptive users, such as canoers and kayakers, to help pay for their use of FWP properties like boat launches. How that should be done, though, should be handled by a separate group, not this advisory council, Sperry said.
EQC research analyst Hope Stockwell told the group that it was her understanding that the EQC would like to remove the $500,000 contingency fund from the proposal.
“I think the EQC is absolutely going to take that money out,” she said.
Rep. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, who sits on the EQC and the licensing group said EQC is concerned about how the money might be spent.
“I feel like we’re throwing in the towel a little bit here,” said Sen. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings, a member of the advisory group. “We need to be talking to EQC members about why it’s important to get off this slush fund narrative.”
If EQC is going to slash the advisory group’s recommendations, some members thought the suggestions would be better coming from them. Others disagreed.
“For credibility purposes, we’re making ourselves vulnerable,” said Sue Daly, FWP finance division administrator, but she said a backup plan would make sense.
Advisory group member Bob Gilbert, of Sidney, urged caution at taking such a course.
“Be cautious, because if you offer something up, they’re going to take it,” he said, noting that members of the group had already compromised with each other to create a well-rounded plan. “Whether they like it or not doesn’t mean it’s over. EQC is not the final word. Hold strong. This is good, common sense. Hold with the numbers and hold with the plan. We can always draft our own bill.”
Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Dan Vermillion disagreed.
“At some point we’re going to have to have our wheels greased with the EQC,” he said, or the group’s eight months of work would be an exercise in futility.
Joe Perry, chairman of another FWP advisory group, told the licensing folks that they still had work to do even if this was their last meeting.
“Citizen input at EQC is very important,” he said. “You need to be there. You need to stand up.”
In May, the EQC authorized the writing of a draft bill of the licensing group’s recommendations. On July 9, the EQC will take up that bill at 1 p.m. in Helena.
Montana's last general resident hunting and fishing license fee increase approved by the Montana Legislature came in 2005 and in 2003 for nonresidents. About two-thirds of FWP’s funding comes from the sale of fishing and hunting licenses. FWP has enough savings to cover its expenditures through about 2017. Because of its 10-year funding cycle, the agency has been drawing from its savings since about 2010 to cover expenses. If no changes are made, a deficit of $90 million by 2026 is predicted.
The call for the funding and license review came from the 2013 Montana Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock. The Legislature passed House Bill 609, which requires the EQC to conduct a study of hunting and fishing license statutes and fees.