DNR campaigns for raising licensing fees

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) - The Department of Natural Resources has a message for Minnesota hunters and anglers: We need more money.

Regional fish and wildlife managers brought that message to a recent meeting of the Izaak Walton League in Duluth, where they stumped for increased license fees included in Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal.

The Duluth News Tribune reports the proposed increases are widely supported by angling and hunting groups.

"I think anglers and sportsmen in Minnesota have always paid their way," said Vern Wagner of Anglers for Habitat, a coalition of angling and conservation groups based in St. Louis Park.

But the increases require approval by the Legislature, and the newspaper said in a story Sunday that key legislators have not indicated an interest in raising fees.

"At this point in time, I don't think they [fee increases] are necessary," said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, chairman of the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee. "If the governor shows us that this is the right thing to do, we'll take a look at that proposal at the correct time."

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Under the proposal, a resident fishing license would go up from $17 to $24. The price of a resident small game license would increase from $19 to $22, and a resident deer license would go from $26 to $30. The proposed increases for nonresident licenses are generally smaller than for resident licenses. Some new fishing and hunting licenses also would be introduced, including some short-term licenses that would cost less.

Already, DNR officials say, tight budgets are forcing cutbacks in agency programs.

"We've been trying to do more with less," Rich Staffon, DNR area wildlife manager at Cloquet, told the Izaak Walton League. "But what we find out is you do less with less."

Statewide, the DNR has about 100 unfilled positions from a staff of about 600. The Enforcement Division alone is down about 20 positions.

"It's really starting to show," Wagner said. "We're not getting the lake surveys. We're having a decrease in conservation officers. We're seeing fewer and fewer boots on the ground, and we're dealing with problems like aquatic invasive species -- zebra mussels and VHS [the fish disease viral hemorrhagic septicemia]."

Minnesota tends to charge less for hunting and fishing licenses than other states. Its $17 resident fishing license ranks 36th among all states, and its $26 deer license is below the $33 average of surrounding and nearby states, the News Tribune reported.

But fee increases aren't popular at the Legislature these days.

"What we're running into, of course, is a sense from the Legislature that they don't want to see any new fees or taxes," Wagner said. "They're trying to apply this to all places and all things."

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said there's no point in waiting.

"Number one, the funding is needed, whether now or later," Johnson said. "If you wait until later, it's just a bigger hole to dig out of. Although it's never a good time to add on fees, the general public is saying, 'Now's the time,' so why not?"

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)