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Is it time to raise Minnesota's fishing and hunting license fees?

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Minnesotans love their fishing and hunting.

The state ranks first nationally with 32 percent of its residents participating in the sports, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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But the state's Game and Fish Fund, used to pay for fisheries and wildlife management, is dwindling, so Department of Natural Resources officials are laying the groundwork for the possibility of raising license fees. They're also considering new kinds of licenses that might appeal to more hunters and anglers.

License revenue is the primary way Minnesota pays for its fish and wildlife management. Tax dollars from the state's general fund pay for only a tiny fraction of those operations.

The DNR's Game and Fish Fund pays for lake surveys, hatcheries, fish stocking, stream improvement and fisheries management. Wildlife revenue pays for managing 1,400 wildlife management areas, managing hunting seasons, prairie plantings, prescribed burns, wetland maintenance and more.

In the past, fishing and hunting license fees have been raised about every six years in Minnesota. But today's hunting and fishing license fees have been in place for a decade. The funds haven't kept up with inflation. As a result, the state's Game and Fish Fund is projected to have a negative balance by 2014, said Dave Schad, deputy director of the DNR. By statute, the fund cannot operate in the red.

The $17 fee Minnesota charges for a basic fishing license is 36th-lowest in the nation.

"If we don't generate some additional license revenue, we're going to have to make significant cuts to our programs and services, and that will eventually impact the quality of our hunting and fishing experiences," said Jason Moeckel, DNR fisheries operations manager.

But Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said it's unlikely the Legislature would consider a license fee increase this session. He said he's spoken with his House counterpart, Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, chairman of the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, about a license fee increase.

"There certainly is a concern there, with the DNR funding going into the red, although not until 2014," Ingebrigtsen said in a phone interview Thursday. "What I took from that conversation (with McNamara) is that even with 'no new taxes,' we're going to approach the ideas of fees somewhere in the future, a couple years down the line. Now, I don't think we can approach it. But I think it's something that has to be addressed."

Making the case

At its annual roundtable conference for about 350 stakeholders last weekend in Brooklyn Center, Minn., DNR officials made their case for license fee increases and a restructuring of license options.

Fishing license fees were last increased in 2001 to the current level of $17. If adjusted for inflation, that license should today cost about $22.50, Schad said. Hunting license fees were last raised significantly in 2000. Minnesota's $23 deer hunting license ranks 30th compared to what other states charge.

Rather than simply raising license fees, the DNR is looking at changing license offerings to make them appealing to more anglers. The agency is considering a three-year annual license, a five-year annual license and a "super individual license" that would cover fishing, big game, small game and required stamps.

Those are some of the options that a Virginia consulting firm, Responsive Management, polled Minnesota license holders about over the past two months. The DNR paid Responsive Management $71,000 to research Minnesota's license-fee rankings among other states and assess support for various new licenses.

New kinds of license

Responsive Management found good support for the three-year and five-year licenses, which would be offered at a discount over the annual rate. The firm also found some support for three-day and seven-day fishing licenses, which currently aren't offered for resident anglers.

"I really do like (those ideas)," Schad said. "Based on the information, it looks like a lot of our customers like them, too. The multi-year options, the combination licenses ... and making sure there are some low-cost options for occasional hunters and anglers -- those seemed to have a lot of support."

It isn't clear whether some of those options would increase license revenue, especially if they're purchased by anglers and dedicated hunters who already buy licenses each year. But offering shorter-term licenses for occasional anglers might result in more license sales. Only 27 percent of Minnesota anglers buy a fishing license five years out of five, Schad said.

Simply raising license fees can have a negative effect, said Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Responsive Management.

"When you start raising fees, you have the potential to lose some license buyers," Duda said.

Cuts made

The DNR already is operating at less than full strength, Schad said. Statewide, the DNR is down 100 full-time positions out of about 600, or about 17 percent of its work force, he said. The Division of Enforcement is down 21 conservation officer positions.

The agency is trying to hold down costs. By using more fuel-efficient vehicles and driving 350,000 fewer miles per year than five years ago, the DNR has saved about $450,000, Schad said.

But those cuts haven't been enough to reverse the decline in the Game and Fish Fund.

Some citizens point to the Legacy Fund, generated from sales tax dollars, as a way to offset declines in license revenues. But Legacy Fund money doesn't go directly to the DNR and cannot be spent on basic agency operations, Schad said. It's used for new projects and land acquisitions.

Mixed reaction

Joe Duggan of Pheasants Forever is chairman of the Budgetary Oversight Committee, a citizen group that monitors DNR spending and revenue.

"Our recommendation to the department and to the Legislature is that we need to do something," Duggan said. "It's been about 10 years since the last major license fee change. ... We're not saying we need a license fee increase now. Our recommendation is we need to take a hard look at licenses and license fees and structure and come up with a plan that's going to be in place for several years."

But Ben Kellin, owner of Ben's Bait in Grand Rapids, Minn., said anglers are growing increasingly frustrated with restrictions placed on them by the DNR, including the recent restrictions on the use of ciscoes as bait due to concerns about the fish disease VHS (viral hemorrhagic septicemia).

"It (a license fee increase) has been talked about a lot," Kellin said. "You look at the cost of a license, $18 or $26, everyone thinks that's measly. A $2 or $3 or $4 increase doesn't bother anybody. But nobody is really happy with what's going on. People aren't supportive of the DNR. They don't want to raise fees so the DNR can be bigger and more intrusive in our lives. ... Every time you turn around, there's more signs."

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