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The open public spaces we manage provide tremendous enjoyment for people who watch animals and explore the outdoors, whether or not they hunt and fish. For DNR's field staff, the challenge of caring for public lands, fish, wildlife, and advising private property owners also provides tremendous satisfaction. Unfortunately, as we all know, warm feelings and satisfaction alone don't buy the groceries...it takes cash.
In Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources together with other public agencies, private companies, and landowners are sustaining an enviable mix of fish and wildlife on a variety of landscapes. We enjoy pursuing some of these animals like fish, deer, bear, waterfowl and upland birds like ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, pheasants and turkeys. And we sustain the habitats that are equally valued by people and fellow animals. Our waters, woods, marshes and fields are home to furbearers including fox, mink, raccoon, beaver, muskrat, otter and coyote. We recognize a place at Mother Nature's table for all other creatures like songbirds, turtles, timber wolves, cranes, insects and mussels.
These wild creatures and the lands, 15,000 lakes, and hundreds of rivers and streams that enrich our lives come at a price, and the price tag keeps rising. Resource management is complicated business subject to all the marketplace influences and fluctuations of any other large public or private venture like wage increases, rising cost of materials, inflation, and the vagaries of weather.
Funding to finance all this comes from a variety of sources, but the mainstay for nearly 100 years has been the sale of licenses. Later, other sources have been added like excise taxes on firearms, ammunition and fishing tackle. Anglers, hunters and trappers have historically paid their way, even financing the wardens who oversee ethical recreation.
In the early 1980s, the Department of Natural Resources worked out an agreement with the Conservation Congress, a citizen group that advises the Natural Resources Board, to plan budgets so the agency would only seek license fee and permit increases once every four years. The four-year cycle was designed to keep up with inflation, not routinely increase programs or staff size. Fish and wildlife programs by statute must live within their annual income. All money from licenses and stamps goes into a dedicated Fish and Wildlife Account which is audited by state and federal authorities to insure that funds are properly spent.
The agreement worked fine until 1995. Following the national trend to shrink government and heed the public call for no new taxes, the State Legislature denied DNR's budget to increase hunting and fishing fees. So fees have not increased since 1991 and current income is not meeting current expenses. Programs had to be cut, and the consequences will be visible.
To stay within its budget in recent years, DNR has reduced trout stocking on inland streams by 50 percent. The agency suspended efforts to improve habitat for fish and game on 300,000 acres. DNR eliminated 75 percent of the fish population surveys on inland lakes that were not affected by Indian treaty fishing rights. The agency stopped hiring new wardens and field managers, leaving many positions vacant. Work to improve lake habitat to grow panfish, bass, pike and musky were slashed 80 percent. Without an increase the next few years, DNR would need to close four hatcheries, reduce walleye and musky stocking, reduce wildlife population surveys, and further reduce both the warden force and field staff.
On top of that, the DNR's last budget was cut $44 million and 232 positions were cut. More downsizing!
Right now, many of the state's hunters and anglers are helping the Department of Natural Resources get legislative approval for a modest increase in license fees. A proposal is included in the current budget request that is receiving legislative review and debate. It's critical that a decision on fee increases be made before March 1, 1997 or the agency wil have to make additional program cuts – $6 million in funding and another 30 jobs – during 1997. The reason is that fishing and hunting licenses expire on March 31 each year. New licenses will have to be printed, invoiced and distributed to the county clerks, businesses and DNR offices that sell licenses by early March.
In the past, increases in sporting fees and licenses have been considered with the rest of the budget which is typically approved in June or July. If sporting fees are not approved until summer, the DNR would likely have to wait until March 1998 to start charging the new fees.
At public meetings held by the Department of Natural Resources and legislative committees, sporting publics have made it clear they don't want further reductions in outdoor programs. They want the Poynette Game Farm back at full pheasant production They want fish hatcheries back up to full production. They want DNR advice to manage habitat on private lands. They support scientific surveys to accurately gauge fish and wildlife populations. They support educational programs that encourage youth participation in hunting, fishing, trapping and outdoor education.
After working with representatives from the Conservation Congress and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, and holding several public meetings, the DNR Board recommended the following increases in the most popular license categories: a $2 increase in resident fishing, resident deer, small game and archer licenses; a $5 increase in non-resident fishing and sports licenses; and a $25 increase in the $100 patron license which is the first patron license increase since it was created in 1984.
The rarely recognized benefits
The sporting public knows what it has at stake, but many others are unaware that they have an equal stake in a strong financial future for professional natural resource management. They also benefit directly from the work done with license money.
Professional stewardship – License fees hire the managers and caretakers who inspect, maintain and improve our public wild lands. When you enjoy seeing geese at Horicon Marsh, sharp-tailed grouse at Crex Meadows, tundra swans and waterfowl on the Upper Mississippi River, sandhill cranes at Gallagher Marsh, whitetails in our state forests and migrating salmon along the Great Lakes, you benefit from these public investments.
New and improved properties – Fees are used to purchase properties and easements. License dollars helped restore Patrick Marsh, north of Madison, to a wetland complex that is home to migrating songbirds, waterfowl, amphibians and mammals. Similar purchases statewide expand the network of pothole ponds, wetlands, oak savannas, river accesses and woodlots that provide green spaces for public recreation. The vast Buena Vista Marsh of central Wisconsin, a refuge for decades where prairie chickens can't be hunted, is managed with funds from hunting licenses.
Fees also helped finance underwater viewing areas in Kewaunee, Brule and the Root River where visitors can watch migrating trout and salmon.
Amenities – New parking lots, trails, watchable wildlife signs, boat launches and viewing blinds at state wildlife areas are paid for with license dollars.
Better resource management – License fees fund research projects that assess management practices, tools and habitat modifications that provide optimal conditions for wildlife and fish. Experimental lake drawdowns, lake treatments, lake plant research, grassland restoration, streambank stabilization, wetland restoration and new techniques in forestry management are funded with such outdoor fees. Controlled burns on grasslands create habitat that benefit bobolinks, meadowlarks and Karner blue butterflies as well as upland game birds. Research in grassland ecology is showing how grasses can be planted and harvested in different ways to benefit wildlife, reduce runoff, and perhaps produce new energy fuels.
License fees also provide the means to practice innovative techniques in the field. Osprey nesting platforms, artificial nesting islands, wetland restoration, selective timber harvests, prescribed burns, prairie maintenance and lake restoration projects all started from the research, the staff time and the equipment that license fees support.
Taking inventory – Fees pay for crews who accurately estimate wildlife and fish populations using creel census, fyke net surveys, aerial surveys, transects, harvest registrations and other tools. Such information is now incorporated in computer mapping programs (Geographic Information Systems) that will help managers map population changes, shifting ranges, new species and disappearing species over time.
Providing year-round recreation – Hunters use public lands about 2½ months a year, but the 530 public fishing and hunting grounds on 560,000 acres of Wisconsin are open all year for skiing, hiking, wildlife watching, photography and outdoor training opportunities.
Access to outdoor adventure – License fees help fund the boat ramps, public piers and parking lots that give all boaters access to public waterways and outdoor recreation.
Bringing wild experiences to town – License fees and excise taxes support urban fisheries programs that stock Milwaukee area ponds and sponsor workshops to teach fishing skills to young and old. Similarly fees provide supplies to the hundreds of volunteers who teach hunting and boating instruction in convenient afternoon, evening and weekend classes statewide.
Outdoor education programs – In addition to the excellent courses on angler, hunter and boating education statewide, license fees have financed new opportunities to learn about the outdoors. Educators have operated the MacKenzie Environmental Center in Poynette for decades and worked with teachers to incorporate environmental studies into their curriculums. A private donation gave DNR staff the opportunity to build an Outdoor Skills Center at the Sandhill Wildlife Area in Babcock. Here, staff have developed programs where children and adults can receive training in introductory deer hunting skills, orienteering, trapping, winter camping, winter mammal tracking, turkey hunting clinics, wildlife ecology short courses, forest ecology and management, wildlife population survey techniques, backpacking, beginning waterfowl hunting, outdoor photography, bird banding, recognizing frog calls, and bow hunting skills, hunter safety and birding.
As the public debate on outdoor fees hits the table this winter, pull up a chair and lend an ear. Whether you hunt and fish or not, you have a stake in continuing strong programs to provide the open spaces, research, education and management that fees support.
David W. Kunelius communicates about resource management issues from DNR's Madison headquarters.