Daniel Rice / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / January 17, 2005
JUNEAU--Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials should have an easy time gaining legislative approval of a plan to increase fishing license prices by $5 to generate money for a new Fairbanks fish hatchery and renovations to Anchorage hatcheries, say Interior lawmakers.
An accompanying plan to increase hunting and trapping license fees, however, is likely to spur debate in the Legislature about the department's finances and its effectiveness at managing game populations for abundance, they said.
Fish and Game representatives announced late last year that they planned to ask the Legislature this session for approval to increase the license fees for fishing, hunting and trapping.
For residents, sport-fishing licenses would increase from $15 to $20, while hunting licenses would go from $25 to $50. Resident trapping licenses would also double, from $15 to $30, and nonresident licenses in all categories would be hiked.
Although Fish and Game officials have floated the increases as a package proposal, Interior legislators said they view the fishing license hike as a separate issue from the increases proposed on the game side.
The fishing license increase is designed to generate an estimated $5.3 million, which combined with federal funds, would pay for a Fairbanks hatchery to stock area waters with more fish and the refurbishing or rebuilding of the two Anchorage-area hatcheries.
The increases on the game side, however, are not tied to a specific project. The Division of Wildlife Conservation, which handles the game side of the department, is so broke it needs the estimated $3.8 million the increases would generate just to stay afloat, according to department representatives.
Although a bill has not yet been introduced, the increases are expected to come before the Legislature this session. If approved by lawmakers, the increases would go into effect Jan. 1, 2006.
Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said that because the fishing license proposal is tied specifically to the Fairbanks hatchery--a project that would benefit the area--he has no problem with the $5 increase.
But "I will want to see what the game folks intend to do with those funds," Kelly said of the proposed hunting and trapping increases.
Kelly said he's concerned about whether the department's management practices provide the state with enough game to hunt. At $50, the state's resident hunting license might still seem like a bargain, but only if hunters have a reasonable chance of harvesting an animal.
"It's a bargain when they're doing their job and we're managing for abundance," Kelly said.
Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, who supports the fishing license increase and the new Fairbanks hatchery, had similar comments about the proposed increases on the game side.
"If I give you more money, can you provide more moose?" Seekins said. "Hunters are asking that."
In addition to management practices, he said, the license increase proposals on the game side will likely lead to debate on the wildlife division's budget. Rather than hear only that the division needs more money, legislators want a breakdown "on a project basis" of where the new funds will be spent, he said.
David James, regional supervisor for Fish and Game in Fairbanks, said the money is needed to protect hunting opportunities in Alaska. The department has not increased its license fees since 1993, and the wildlife division's budget has been strained by inflation and new responsibilities such as predator control and indoor shooting ranges.
Without additional revenue--the Fish and Game is funded exclusively through fees and federal monies--game officials will struggle to perform even basic population monitoring, much less active management techniques, he said.
For hunters, that could mean changes like shorter seasons and less hunting opportunities than are available now.
"We're broke; we're in bad shape," James said of the wildlife division. "If we don't get it, we're talking about permanent down-sizing."
In recent meetings with fish and game advisory councils, James has undertaken an effort to educate people about the department's finances and counter the idea that managers are being secretive about what they do with their funding.
The department's books are wide-open for anyone who cares to take a look, he said.
"There's a perception out there that we just take the money and spend it willy-nilly, and it's not clear to me how that got started," James said.
As of last week, James said that he had not heard of any legislator who planned on sponsoring a bill to institute the license increases.
In preliminary discussions, much of the opposition in Juneau to the game license increases seems to be coming from Fairbanks-area legislators, said Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks.
He said people from the Interior tend to view a $25 increase differently than people from other parts of the state, such as Anchorage.
"Twenty-five dollars may not be a lot in Anchorage, but it is in Fairbanks," said Ramras.
Woodie Salmon, D-Beaver, said he's also concerned about the impact the license increases would have on his constituents.
On the other hand, the increases in nonresident licenses could prove beneficial by leading to the availability of more moose and game for Alaskans, he said.
In fact, most of the new revenue generated from Fish and Game's proposal would come from nonresidents.
Nonresidents hunting fees would go from $85 to $100. A combined hunting and trapping license for nonresidents would increase from $250 to $300.
In addition, the big game tags that Outsiders already pay a hefty price for would also increase.
For example, the tag fee for nonresidents to hunt a black bear would go from $225 to $275, a caribou from $325 to $425, a moose from $400 to $500 and a bison from $450 to $1,000, according to a Fish and Game fact sheet on the proposal.
Seekins said the Legislature could ultimately consider the fishing license increase separately from the increases on the game side.
"In fact, I think that's probably how it will come out," he said.
Reporter Daniel Rice can be reached in Juneau at firstname.lastname@example.org or 463-4893
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