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Fish and Game Needs an Overhaul, Not an Increase in License Fees

Lynn Levengood / Fairbanks Daily News Miner / January 2, 2005

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is seeking large increases in the cost of hunting and fishing licenses. While adequate financial resources are necessary to manage Alaska's fish and game, there are legitimate concerns warranting investigation of the department's current "management" policies and lack of fiscal accountability.

The sport-fishing license increase is requested to build a fish hatchery. However, currently there are no spending restrictions that would require increased funds to be spent on hatchery construction. Many are asking why neither subsistence nor commercial users are being asked to pay additional fees.

Fish and Game's Wildlife Conservation Division promises that all additional hunting-license revenue will be spent only on active wildlife management. Previously, however, with this same promise the Legislature appropriated nearly $1 million for active management programs. Of these funds, 100 percent were diverted by the department. On another occasion, $100,000 was appropriated for local fish and game advisory committees. These funds were also diverted.

Fish and Game routinely shifts appropriated money to whatever spending it desires, even when many such expenditures may not qualify for payment by the Alaska fish and game fund.

Alaska and federal law requires all fish and game fund and federal matching money to be spent only on projects that directly benefit people with hunting and fishing licenses. Nearly all money appropriated to the Division of Wildlife Conservation is from these restricted funds as no general fund money is appropriated. Fish and Game admits that the fish and game fund money pays for non-game and non-hunting activities but has not provided any financial accounting of how much it spends on such non-qualifying programs.

Watchable wildlife, marine mammal research, songbird and non-game programs, McNeil River and Pack Creek bear viewing, non-hunter education programs, opinion surveys, frog research, Project Wild and employee retirement expenditures are all current examples of Fish and Game expenditures that do not directly benefit hunters. Because these types of expenditures may violate Alaska law, a legislative audit is necessary to ascertain the extent to which license fees are being spent on non-qualifying activities. Until a legislative audit demonstrates that no fish and game money is being misused, the request for additional revenue from license purchasers should be tabled.

Expenditure of restricted funds on non-qualifying activities could place the state of Alaska at risk of losing the receipt of federal matching funds (nearly $20 million this year). The state of New Jersey recently faced the loss of its federal matching funds for similar reasons.

From a cost/benefit analysis, why should Alaska hunters pay more for less?

Under Fish and Game's current management, Alaska's moose and sheep populations have steadily declined. This year nearly 70,000 Alaskans received moose-harvest tags, but under 10 percent were successful. The continued decline of wildlife populations legitimately raises the issue of whether a department that has done very little to prevent the substantial depletion of Alaska's sustaining wildlife populations should be rewarded. Recently, the department opposed and interfered with the Board of Game's efforts to restore depleted moose populations.

In the past few years, the department has hired planners, coordinators and liaison positions and left unfilled area biologist positions.

We question whether an anti-active management department should receive more money to continue to oppose Board of Game actions to restore game populations to abundance. The Wildlife Conservation Division is frequently called "the Department of Watch 'em and Count 'em" for its failure to implement the intensive management statute that requires active management of depleted wildlife populations.

Total reorganization of the department is necessary, as is a change of leadership. The Alaska Legislature should seriously consider whether all non-hunting or shooting-related activities should be transferred to other agencies. Wouldn't the McNeil River and Pack Creek bear viewing fit better under Alaska State Parks?

Until fiscal constraints are statutorily imposed and an audit shows that all license money and matching funds are not being misused and active management measures are routinely implemented, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Association will oppose license-fee increases.

The AWCA's sole purpose is restoring wildlife populations to abundance. We are the group that organized 4,000 demonstrators for active management at Gov. Walter Hickel's 1992 Wolf Summit.

Lynn E. Levengood is an executive board member of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation

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