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How can we sustain Fish and Game?

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Up on the hill behind my house, the big tom is gobbling. Brook trout are shaking off their winter sluggishness, and woodcocks and peepers will soon be calling.

While our streams and forests are springing to life, conversations are stirring in Concord about wildlife too – namely, how to bring meaningful funding to the N.H. Fish and Game Department.

The agency charged with managing the public’s fish and wildlife faces chronic and profound funding challenges. What Fish and Game needs – and what the public deserves – is a fair and stable source of funding.

For decades, the Department has been funded through a combination of revenue from fishing and hunting licenses, federal aid and several other sources. The federal aid comes from excise taxes paid by manufacturers of hunting and fishing equipment. This ingenious approach allows the federal government – by way of hunters’ and anglers’ purchases – to help fund states’ management of game and fish. There are a bunch of other revenue sources, like boat registration fees and so on.

Rising costs, declining license sales

But the days of Fish and Game funding without meaningful public support – revenue from the state’s general fund – are at a crossroads. In the past few years – because of declining license revenue – the department has raised fishing and hunting fees, which collectively provides less than 20 percent of the budget. And raising fees has also has the effect of turning away some hunters and anglers.

The department in recent years has also sought and received money from the state’s general fund – to the tune of under $1 million a year – providing less than 3 percent of the agency’s budget.

Even this sum from the general fund is well-spent peanuts when you consider wildlife’s impact to New Hampshire’s economy, an estimated $556 million in 2011. And for this two-year budget cycle, the N.H. House has recommended $1.5 million a year from the general fund, which is far less than what Fish and Game had sought.

“The real issue is that our costs go up each year, but our revenues don’t,” said Glenn Normandeau, executive director of N.H. Fish and Game. “Salaries and benefits are more than half of our budget. Those costs will go up more than $1 million per biennium without anything else happening. The only way to deal with that is to not fill (vacant) positions or lay off staff.”

While many of Fish and Game’s functions are paid for by dedicated funds – like search and rescue and enforcing off-highway recreational vehicle laws – those tasks are done by people. “At some point, someone has to decide whether we continue to do these things and do we pay people to keep doing them,” Normandeau said.

Broad Perspective to Examine Fish & Game

But if one thing is certain for Fish and Game’s funding, it’s that nothing is certain. And the lack of stability is no way to set targets for the myriad of essential programs and services that the department provides.

A bill in the N.H. Legislature would look at ways to provide sustainable funding for the department. Senate Bill 48 would establish a study committee with representatives from a wide spectrum of wildlife and natural resource backgrounds to examine questions that beg to be addressed, like funding and broadening the public’s role in advising the department.

As a hunter who eagerly awaits the start of spring wild turkey season, I’m keenly aware of that gobbler on the hill. I know that hunters’ purchase of firearms and ammunition helped provide federal aid for turkeys to be reintroduced to their native New Hampshire. I’m happy to report that my annual purchase of a wild turkey license helps the department manage this remarkable bird. And so it goes with my deer tag for managing New Hampshire’s deer herd. Likewise, my purchase of fishing gear and license to manage brook trout and smallmouth bass that satisfy my summer afternoons.

No amount of money I pay for hunting and fishing can translate to the satisfaction these privileges bring me – the times well spent outside, often with my outdoors-loving sons. We are passing along great traditions.

But New Hampshire’s wildlife is more than game and game-fish. There are more than 400 species that are not hunted, fished or trapped that also bring priceless satisfaction. The department’s own top-notch Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program manages many of those species, from wood turtles to Karner blue butterflies and Northern long-ear bat – all on donations matched by a modest $50,000 from the state.

Senate Bill 48 isn’t THE answer. But it’s a start in the right direction to bring together a broad set of minds to help Fish and Game receive the funding that the public and its wildlife deserve.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock. ericadine@gmail.com.