Is a license fee hike on horizon?

Lansing — In his state budget proposal released last week, Gov. Rick Snyder called for several legislative appropriations aimed at enhancing Michigan’s natural resources. Among them: restructuring hunting and fishing licenses and increasing most license fees. The changes are expected to reduce the total number of licenses to 31 and generate additional revenue for the cash-strapped department, which hasn’t realized a license fee increase in more than 15 years.

“We currently have 227 licenses and subsets, and this would trim it to 31. It’s a commitment to license fee simplification,” DNR Director Keith Creagh said in a conference call last week. “This would generate about $18 million for the department, not for administrative costs, not for computers, but for boots and on-the-ground stuff.”

The fee increase is estimated to generate $18.3 million dollars for the Wildlife, Fisheries and Law Enforcement divisions. The increase would immediately pave the way for an additional 16 conservation officers. The number of COs in Michigan steadily has been declining from a high of more than 250 in the not-too-distant past. The DNR currently has 173 commissioned COs, down from 194 just four years ago.

Additional financial support for the DNR would come from increased appropriations from the state’s General Fund.

Snyder’s budget proposal calls for an increase in General Fund appropriations to the DNR from $17.6 million annually (about 6 percent of the DNR’s total budget) to $24.7 million. One immediate advantages of that influx of cash would be the addition of 25 more COs in the field.

“That would take us up to 198 with the General Fund increase and another 16 through the license package,” Law Division Chief Gary Hagler said.

Most license fees would increase, a couple would be reduced, and some, like senior and mentored youth licenses, would remain virtually unchanged.

“We want to maintain the senior discount,” Creagh said. “We recognize the fact that a number of seniors have been the backbone of conservation in this state for years. We also want to keep hunting and fishing free for disabled veterans.”

The proposal still must gain the support of the Michigan Legislature, and the statute end of the license fee proposal must be presented and approved in by legislators. A sponsor has not yet stepped forward.

“The last time there was an increase by the Legislature was 1997,” said Sharon Schafer, chief of the DNR’s Finance and Operations Division.

Under the proposal, hunters would have to purchase a “base” license for $10 as a prerequisite to purchasing any other license. The base license would allow the holder to hunt small game and waterfowl. Each deer license would cost an additional $20 (antlered or antlerless). The combo deer license would be eliminated, but hunters would still be able to purchase two licenses for antlered deer and would be able to use them during any season, according to DNR Wildlife Division Chief Russ Mason.

The two-tiered fishing license also would be history. Under the proposal, there would be just one fishing license, good for all species, and it would cost $25. That’s a slight decrease from the current all-species license fee of $28, but an increase for those who only fish for warm-water species like walleyes and bass on the current restricted license, which costs $14.

Spring and fall turkey licenses would remain $15, but a bear tag would increase to $25. Seniors would receive a 60-percent discount on all hunting and fishing licenses..

Snyder’s budget proposal also pledged $2 million to replace one of four fishery research vessels on the Great Lakes, and $4 million to the state police for natural resource emergency response, like helping with forest fire management.

“We had 496 wildfires last year, including the Duck Lake Fire (over 21,000 acres). The governor wants to make sure we budget for these routine emergencies …,” Creagh said.

Sportsmen could expect to see major changes in on-the-ground management activity if the license fee increase is approved.

“We’d be able to expand the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative and the Waterfowl Legacy Program. We could improve deer habitat by doing more openings and food plots. We could expand shooting opportunities in southern Michigan.

There is a long list of things (that could be accomplished),” Mason said.

Jim Dexter, chief of the Fisheries Division, said additional funding would allow his division to accomplish a multitude of tasks, as well.

Appropriated 2013 budgets are, for the Wildlife Division, $31.4 million; Fisheries Division, $29.2 million; and Law Enforcement Division, $29 million.

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