Fish and Game feels strain from lost revenues

COEUR d’ALENE — Even though revenues are way down in recent years, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game won’t be coming forward with a legislative package this current session to raise prices for hunters and anglers.

“We’re not much different than the rest of state government with revenue declining over the last four years,” said Virgil Moore, department director.

Partially, that’s a result of the economy, he said.

“Certainly we don’t want to raise the cost of our product,” Moore said.

But, he said, “We’ll be looking at whether to bring forward in 2014 some suggestions for revenue increase.”

He said the department has a rainy-day fund that could cover some needs.

“We could get by, but the edges are showing,” Moore said.

The department is what’s called a “dedicated-fund agency,” so it can’t spend more than the revenue it brings in.

The department has cut spending during the past five years, making it a more efficient agency, he said.

The department often has been compensating for lost revenue by leaving positions unfilled for six months to save on personnel costs, he said.

“We’re down two officers through the hunting season this year,” said Chip Corsi, supervisor of the agency’s Panhandle region. “That puts a little strain on stuff, but we just adjust and work through it.”

That’s two officers out of 13, he said.

If someone witnesses some illegal activity, it becomes more likely an officer is two hours away instead of a half-hour, Corsi said.

Moore said there has been a decline in service to the public by the department, “But most of it has been invisible because of the way we have adjusted that spending.”

In some ways, it’s become more expensive to provide the critical services that are at the core of the department’s mission.

The cost of fish feed, for example, has gone up 50 percent in the past four years.

The department had to cut hatchery production by 200,000 pounds to balance spending and revenue.

“Consistently we’re being told that hatchery fish is one of the most important things we do,” Corsi said.

One of the primary reasons revenue is down is a reduction in sales of non-resident deer and elk tags, which had long been a reliable source. The department has come up $9.3 million short of expected revenues during the past four years, Moore said.

The agency’s revenue during that time ranged from $72 million to $78 million last year.

Moore doesn’t anticipate non-resident deer and elk tag sales picking up faster than the economy.

“I think it’s tied to that more than other factors, such as wolf issues,” Moore said.

Some parts of north central Idaho aren’t producing the numbers of elk that they did in the 1980s and 1990s. Still the state has more elk hunting opportunities than any other state, with the exception of Colorado.

The department is writing a new elk management plan that will be completed later this year.

“Regardless of what happens to our revenue, we will double down on deer and elk in this state,” Moore said. “It is our core. We will adjust spending in other programs to implement this new elk plan.”

As for fishing, increased license sales helped compensate for the losses from shrinking deer and elk tag sales, he said. Revenue from fishing licenses has been up for both residents and non-residents.

Moore said the department is encouraged by recent surveys that show some potential for overall customer growth.

“Instead of the 300,000 residents who are holding a hunting or fishing license in any given year, we’ve got 700,000 customers out there” who identify themselves as hunters or anglers or both, Moore said.

“We wouldn’t have a revenue problem if I could get 20 percent of them to buy (a license or tags) every year instead of dropping out,” Moore said.

The department plans to offer a three-year fishing license to reduce churn in the customer base.

The department can’t increase prices across the board, because 20 percent of the customers are lower income and too price sensitive, Moore said.

The department also received a recent spike from a new product — wolf tags. That brought in $500,000 last year, Moore said.

Department leaders believe that will likely go down some in future years.

“We went much higher on that than we ever anticipated,” Moore said.

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