DNR says fee hikes are crucial
Written by Wisconsin State Journal   
Sunday, 13 March 2005 13:22

With winter loosening its grip on icy streams and lakes, you would think the talk at local rod and gun clubs would be of fish to be caught in the spring days to come.

 

But in the small clubhouses and halls where anglers and hunters while away these late, off-season days, they're talking not of sport but of money - specifically a plan from the Department of Natural Resources to increase how much they will pay for their fishing and hunting licenses.

Those rod and gun clubs, you know the ones at the edge of town with a shooting range out back and picnic tables under the trees, are good places to go to get a handle on just how the DNR's proposal is being received.

Harry Meinking belongs to a couple of those clubs, the West Salem and the Bangor Rod and Gun Club, on the banks of Dutch Creek. Reaction at both clubs is mixed, Meinking said, though more members are in favor of the proposed increases than against.

At a recent meeting in West Salem, Meinking said, he conducted a survey and found that 31 were for the increases, although some suggested they be lower, while 13 were against the proposal. The plan to boost the resident deer hunting license from $20 to $32 drew the most fire.

"The big issue," Meinking said of the opponents, "was many thought the increase in the deer license was just too much, especially for youth and for those over 65.

"You know, a person working minimum wage, they are out hunting to put meat on the table. And let's say they have two kids who want to hunt and then there's the guns and shells and clothing. It just gets expensive."

But Meinking, 70, said he supports the proposed increases. He's hunted since he was 8, he said, and remembers stories from his grandfather, who hunted deer for the old logging camps in the North Woods. In 1913, Meinking said, his grandfather paid $1 for his hunting license. He knows because he's got the license laminated in plastic.

Increasing license fees, Meinking said, is necessary to nourish a heritage that goes back all those years to old hunters like his grandfather.

"There's definitely a need for it," Meinking said. "It's for tomorrow. To keep these programs going."

Officials with the DNR are keenly aware of how important the support from such groups is if the agency is to get the fee increases approved. So Secretary Scott Hassett has dispatched his troops to the countryside, armed with Power Point programs.DNR warns of cuts

But without the boost, Hassett said, cuts will be necessary. They likely will include:

? 25 of the 205 conservation warden positions.

? $2.2 million from the wildlife program.

? $2.14 million from the fisheries program.

? Elimination of habitat management on state lands.

? Eliminating wildlife population surveys.

? 50 percent decrease in both musky and walleye stocking.

? 70 percent cut in inland trout production.

Hassett and others in the agency make no bones about how important this issue is to the agency. That's why last week Hassett was up at 3 a.m. Wednesday to catch a plane for Superior, where he spent the day talking about the fee increases. The day before he had campaigned in Milwaukee.

Others, such as Chief Warden Randy Stark, are also making the circuit of sporting groups. Stark is particularly passionate about the need for the increases. He's in charge of a warden force that he says is stretched desperately thin.

Statewide, Stark said, the agency is short 30 wardens. Because of budget restraints, no new wardens have been trained for two years. This means that for every 17,189 license holders fishing or hunting in Wisconsin, there is one warden at work in the field doing everything from checking licenses to responding to emergency calls.

In some areas, the shortages have made it almost impossible for wardens to respond to calls in a timely fashion. In northeast Wisconsin, Stark said, five wardens have to cover 5,000 square miles. If a call comes in from Goodman, for example, it will take the closest warden, stationed in Peshtigo, 1 hours to respond.

"These are staffing levels like we had in the 1920s," Stark said.Support, and politics

"We just had our Walleye Day on Lake Nekoosa," Norberg said. "And you've got tons of boats and people pulling in just walleye after walleye and not a warden in sight. . . . I'm absolutely one hundred percent for the increase. We need it. We can't keep cutting back on enforcement and other programs."

There is more than sport involved here, however. There is also politics.

The Republican-controlled state Legislature has been practically at war with the DNR over everything from how it has managed chronic wasting disease in the deer herd to the agency's handling of regulatory permits. Much of that antagonism seems to reside with the members of the Joint Committee on Finance, the committee that is currently holding hearings on the fee proposal and will eventually either approve or veto the increases.

Some of the committee's Republican members say they are skeptical.

"There are a lot of us in the Legislature," said state Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, "who feel the DNR doesn't spend its money wisely."

Kaufert, committee co- chairman, said he thinks some increase is probably necessary but not as much as the agency is seeking. "I see compromise," Kaufert said. "I think we can pick and choose here."

In other words, Kaufert said, perhaps the committee will consider some increase in the cost of a resident deer hunting license, which hasn't risen in price in nine years, just not the entire $12 increase the DNR wants.

State Sen. Robert Cowles, R- Green Bay, also a member of the finance committee, said he also foresees approval of some increases, just not the levels that have been proposed. "My hope is we can get some bang for our buck for just a little less," Cowles said.

Hassett, who has learned much about the political nature of his job in the last couple of years, understands that compromise is likely. But he also said he hopes that state legislators and others don't make decisions based on their views of how the agency has handled such controversial issues as CWD, growing wolf populations and environmental permitting. Those are tough natural resource management issues on which there are going to be legitimate disagreements, he said. But they shouldn't dictate the agency's financial future.

"We may have our differences on any number of issues," Hassett said. "But we have to put that aside when it comes to a fee increase that is about our heritage."

The shortage of wardens is one of the main reasons Dan Norberg, an angler from Wisconsin Rapids and a former member of the Central Wisconsin Walleye Club, strongly supports the proposed increases. The stakes are high, Hassett said last week. Without the fee increases - including an increase in the resident fishing license from $17 to $20 a year - the agency's $85 million Fish and Wildlife Account will face a $20 million deficit by the end of 2007. That account pays for just about everything related to hunting and fishing, such as conservation wardens, habitat improvement and fish stocking. The proposed increases, Hassett said, would be enough to keep the programs operating at their current levels.
 
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