Fish and Wildlife faces budget crunch
By LOUIS PORTER Vermont Press Bureau | March 21,2007
MONTPELIER — As the number of hunters and anglers in Vermont has declined over the past two decades, so has a main source of funding for the state's Fish and Wildlife Department.
At the same time, the range and complexity of the department's work has increased, leaving the state with the dilemma of how to pay for the once self-supporting agency.
That has left Vermont with unfilled positions in the department and losing out on some federal funding because of a lack of matching money from the state, officials and advocates said.
"Traditionally, we have not gotten general fund money," said Tom Decker, chief of operations for the department. But "we are not the same department we were 100 years ago."
The department enforces hunting and fishing laws, works on permit applications and employs the vast majority of biologists in state government.
In 1987, there were 112,000 hunting licenses sold in Vermont. By 2005, the last year with complete data, that number had dropped to just over 80,000.
That represents a large loss of revenue for Fish and Wildlife. In each of the past three years the Legislature has approved about $2.2 million in general fund expenditures to support the department, which once relied on its own license fees and taxes on things such as fishing gear.
But funding through a one-time allocation of money makes it difficult for the department to plan ahead.
A study by a group of nine Vermonters from a broad spectrum of interested organizations and groups recommended several changes to how the department is funded.
Among them was the idea of dedicating roughly 1/8 percent of the state's sales tax to fund Fish and Wildlife, a portion of the rooms and meals tax and considering a permit for nonmotorized boats.
The House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee began hearing testimony Tuesday on the issue.
The committee will likely make a recommendation to the committees that craft the budget, said Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, committee chairman.
"This is similar to agriculture in this state," Deen said. "We have a declining financial capacity, but the state defines itself by its outdoor sports as well as its use of the land."
But in a tight budget year, the problem may be finding money that is not used somewhere else.
More people than ever in Vermont are doing outdoor sports, Deen said. But birders, hikers and canoers don't pay permits in the same way hunters and fishermen do, he said. The work of the department also benefits those other activities, Deen said.
That is a problem Jim Shallow, conservation and policy director of Audubon Vermont, knows well.
"License sales have either stagnated or declined," said Shallow, the co-chairman with James Ehlers of the group that drafted the Fish and Wildlife Department Funding Task Force, "The department's duties have expanded … there is a gap there between their funding need and where their funding is coming from," Shallow said.
Dedicating a portion of the sales tax has worked in other states, like Arkansas, Missouri and Texas, which have seen similar declines in their hunting license revenue, according to the report.
And the idea is justified because wildlife-related activities bring in about $8.4 million in sales tax revenue in Vermont. One-eighth of one percent of the sales tax would give the department about $6 million a year, according to the report.
Vermont is not alone in facing the problem. States across the country have seen the number of hunters and anglers decline steadily, according to national surveys.
Meanwhile, the work of the Fish and Wildlife Department has expanded, as its 131 employees do more reviews of things like wind power permits and take on more law enforcement duties, experts said.
In addition, the recognition that ecosystems need to be managed in a complete way instead of for individual species has added to that complexity.
"We need to set up a fund to support the department in a way so it can do its work," said Steve Wright, a former commissioner of the department and Northeast regional representative for the National Wildlife Federation.
"These resources go well beyond hunters and fishers and wildlife watchers to the quality of life for all Vermonters," he said. "We are as much connected to natural systems as toads and tiger beetles."
About six authorized positions in the department are now vacant because of lack of funding, and that number has been as high as 11 in recent years.
The lack of reliable funding creates other problems as well. By some estimates, nearly $3 million in federal money was left unclaimed last year because of a lack of about $1 million in state money.
However, legislators in the Statehouse are struggling to figure out where to get money for things the state has already committed to.
Layered on top of that issue are several surprise expenditures already agreed to this year, like an extension of grants to dairy farmers and a hole left in the Education Fund because of past incomplete funding.
It's up to the Legislature how they want to fund the department, Decker said.
"How we are funded or where we are funded from becomes the job of the Legislature," he said.