For the week of September 2 thru September 8, 1998  

Fish and Game assesses resources

Agency fights to balance cuts and demands

Express Staff Writer

Like many other land management agencies, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is feeling the pressure of budget cuts at the same time the public demands more programs.

And while some agencies are counting user-fee revenues, Fish and Game will spend the rest of the summer trying to rally public support behind two funding initiatives it hopes will reverse its budgetary woes.

Many of Fish and Game’s budget shortfalls begin at the heart of the department’s mission. Mike Todd, regional conservation educator, said Fish and Game’s purpose is twofold: to protect and preserve wildlife resources and to provide recreational opportunities for hunting, fishing and trapping for the state’s residents.

Until recently, hunters, fishers and trappers were the majority users of resources managed by the agency. Todd said about 25 percent of the state’s population hunts or fishes.

However, he said, those numbers are declining, and more non-game recreationists want to interact with wildlife as well. These "wildlife watchers," Todd said, want to see programs such as interpretive trails.

Still, it is the hunters, anglers and trappers who are paying for a majority of Fish and Game’s budget through license fees.

The only way a non-fisher or non-hunter can support Fish and Game is to buy a deer or elk license plate.

And so Fish and Game finds itself in a predicament, lacking the money to fund the increased services the public says it wants.

"The budget situation is going down the toilet," said Mike Todd, regional conservation educator for south central Idaho "We’re going to be totally broke."

In order to simply stay afloat budget-wise, Todd said, the department will request an increase in deer and elk fees from the state legislature in January.

Fish and Game, however, must also restructure its revenue sources for long-term needs. And so from now until Oct. 1, Fish and Game is presenting four funding alternatives to the public for comment.

Two options use a mixture of hunting and fishing license funds with general public funds. General public funds could be special taxes or a dedicated portion of the existing sales tax.

The other two options depend strictly on hunters and anglers to fund Fish and Game, as they do now. Whatever the chosen option, Fish and Game needs to raise an additional $6.5 million in annual revenues.

The current Fish and Game budget includes $25.8 million in federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, and from state dedicated funds, but no state tax revenues. Another $30.9 million comes from a combination of federal excise taxes and hunting and fishing license and tag fees from both in-state and out-of-state sportsmen.

A brochure outlining the 1999 funding proposal stated that both license sales and federal funds are static or declining at a time when public expectations remain high.

Earlier this summer, the department went to the public to solicit input on how to balance resources with management. More than 17,000 residents responded to the Stand Down and Listen survey.

According to Fish and Game brochure, 96 percent of those surveyed wanted resources expanded.

"People expect the government to do more with less," Todd said. "Wildlife resources belong to everyone, but who should we be listening to?"

Without the increases, Fish and Game will take tangible hits, many of which will fall on its employees. Already, Todd said, the department has had to eliminate 30 positions, leaving it with 425 full-time employees. Any position left open due to attrition is not filled for a minimum of five months. Todd added that 30 additional employees will be laid off each year until the budget shortfall is reversed.

"I’ve worked at Fish and Game for 18 years and morale is as bad as its ever been," Todd said.

Lee Frost, a local conservation officer, said the effect on wildlife and habitats will cut even deeper.

"The reason this is so dire is because somewhere down the road we can refund the agency, but the resources will be lost," Frost said.


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