DNR floats hunting, fishing fee hikes; Republicans aren't biting

Anglers on Lake Winnibigoshish return to shore.
Fishing licenses would cost $3 more under the governor's budget proposal that Republicans are bucking.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2015

The fund that pays for fish and wildlife management in Minnesota has fallen from more than $20 million a few years ago to less than $10 million. Next year, it will be half that.

By 2019, it'll be gone, says Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr, who's pressing the Legislature now for a series of price increases to close a long-standing funding gap.

Under DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal, a deer hunting tag would go from $30, to about $34. A fishing license would be $25, $3 more than it is now. The cost of a state park pass would also go up, by $1 per day. The last time that fee saw an increase was more than a decade ago.

The money would help pay for everything from state park maintenance to deer population research to walleye stocking in Lake Mille Lacs. "We stock over 1,000 lakes with walleye," said Landwehr. "Without the fee increase we would have to stop stocking on at least 200 lakes."

The increase, if passed, would keep fish and wildlife, and the parks department solvent for five or six more years, he added.

The fee hikes, however, are largely absent from the bills up for debate this week in Minnesota's Republican-controlled House and Senate. GOP leaders are skeptical of the increases. House Environment and Natural Resources Committee Chair Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, says people he's talked to want the DNR to do a better job of managing resources.

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"They need to show more of a willingness to make some reforms within the agency," said Fabian. "I met with the commissioner before the session started, and said I realize we're going to have to come to some sort of an agreement on the budget eventually, but bring me your ideas for reforms, bring me your ideas for streamlining."

The House bill has no fee increase for hunting and fishing licenses, though it includes the one for state parks, Fabian added.

Landwehr hopes Fabian and other lawmakers put the rest of his fee increases in the budget backed by the Legislature. If not, "we could face potentially losing camping at 34 state parks," he said. "We would throw the doors open, but we would not have camping, because we can't provide the services at those state parks."

Any fee increase has the potential to be controversial, but angler and business owner Duane Peterson says this one is necessary, and pretty small.

"I buy hunting licenses, fishing licenses, licenses for my boat. I use a state park sticker. I think if I added the increases for all of those it would be $50 or $60," said Peterson, who owns Northland Fishing Tackle in Bemidji. "It's a small price to pay for the fishery and the hunting opportunities that we have."

Most of the hunters and anglers who come through his doors wouldn't mind paying a little more for a license and wouldn't even notice the $3 increase, he said.

They would care, a lot, he added, if the DNR quit stocking their favorite lakes with walleye.

MPR News reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this report.