Minnesota Senate to vote on hunting and fishing fee increases

St. Paul — The state Senate is likely to vote this week on a wide-ranging bill that includes increases in the cost of fishing and hunting licenses.

Still, it’s not a certainty that lawmakers will approve them this session, in part because a House bill – as of earlier this week – hadn’t yet been heard.

“Oh yes, yes I’m sure something is going to be happening,” said Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, who’s carrying the fee-increase bill in the House. “We’re going to be addressing it one way or the other.”

An increase wouldn’t be a moment too soon, as the Game and Fish Fund, which pays for the majority of fish and wildlife management in the state, is set to go into the red in early July 2013.

“If angling and hunting license fees are not adjusted, $2.5 million will need to be ‘unallotted’ in July 2012 and expenditures will need to be reduced by $6.7 million annually beginning July 2013,” according to a document called “Game and Fish Fund Expenditure Contingency Plan.”

But DNR officials say the agency already has been working to tighten its belt.

The Wildlife Section, for example, currently has vacant 37 of its 230 positions. Dennis Simon, Wildlife Section chief, says some of those positions have been eliminated, and that he plans to fill some of them. But he plans to hold 15 positions vacant until it’s clear what’s happening with funding.

“We’ve managed so far by working a little extra hard and having our wildlife managers just fill in the gaps,” Simon said. “We’re covering the bases, but at a reduced response level. It’s starting to show up.”

There’s a personal side, too.

“I’m concerned about the stress levels in our staff,” Simon said. “If we don’t get relief, we’re just going to have to shut down some activities. We can’t continue to do more with less.”

The Fisheries Section has been holding open vacant positions around the state, too, said Dirk Peterson, the section chief.

“Probably about half of our field offices are at a critical staffing level,” he said. “If there’s much more loss, we will have to consider consolidating or closing some field offices.

“And if we were to be without a fee increase, we would probably lose another 20 field staff,” he added.

The last time there was a general license-fee increase was in 2001.

Walk-in access

The Senate bill that includes the fee increases, SF 1830, authored by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, also includes a funding mechanism for a walk-in access program.

The bill would create a $15 walk-in access hunter validation, which anyone 18 or older would need before using land enrolled in the program. The validation cost for 16- and 17-year-olds would be $7.50. Anyone younger than that also would need a validation, but it would be free.

The House has been cool to the idea of a validation fee, though. The Game and Fish Bill – HF 2171, authored by Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar – that’s set to be heard in the Ways and Means Committee this week – would divert the money that’s been going to the state’s venison donation program and use it to fund the walk-in program.

That includes a $5 surcharge on non-resident deer licenses, as well as voluntary donations from hunters. Hackbarth said he’s still waiting to hear how much that would raise for the walk-in program.

“We need some money, and I think that’s a good way to do it,” he said. “This will at least keep it viable for now.”

The DNR had planned a three-year, federally funded pilot walk-in program. But that money was trimmed from the federal budget, which has thrown the future of the walk-in program into question.

Legacy bills

The Senate last week passed the Legacy bill, which includes the recommendations of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. The Senate approved the bill, SF 2493, on a 63-0 vote. Ingebrigtsen is the bill’s author. The House has made a variety of revisions to the Legacy bill, including the recommendations of the L-SOHC. The Senate bill includes the $14 million recommendation for the Mississippi Northwoods Habitat Complex near Brainerd. The House has reduced that amount to about $7 million.

Additionally, the House would spend $7.5 million in Outdoor Heritage Funds on Asian carp deterrents, while the Senate would spend $5.5 million. The House also would spend $2.2 million for research on aquatic invasive species.

The House bill is HF 2430. Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, is carrying the legislation.

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