Pa. looking for more ways to pay for wildlife services
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Some people look out the window and see a natural world that could take care of itself if we would just leave it alone.
But those more experienced in the outdoors and employees of the two agencies that manage the state's wildlife see something else: A man-made landscape of unnatural second growth teeming with thousands of species of plants and animals living in a constantly changing artificial environment.
In short, they see the need for constant and costly stewardship of Pennsylvania's wildlife resources. But it's become increasingly hard to pay for it.
Officials at the state's separate Game Commission and Fish and Boat Commission said they're struggling to find alternative funding necessary to maintain services. With a deficit expected in 2011, Fish and Boat commissioners are considering raising fees for fishing licenses.
Unlike other state agencies, the wildlife management commissions get no money from Pennsylvania's general fund, relying since their founding about 100 years ago on revenue raised from hunters and anglers. With no contribution from the general public and a new emphasis on maintaining habitats for nongame species, agency officials said they're strained to the breaking point.
A 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey found that while participation in traditional hunting and fishing was waning, wildlife watching had become the fastest growing outdoors pastime, both nationally and in Pennsylvania.
But plans for expanding the state agencies' existing management of nongame species -- including goals detailed in the Game Commission's newly released five-year plan -- are not financially sustainable under the state's current funding process.
"Wildlife watchers are not funding what they're doing directly," said Jim Bonner, executive director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. "And some of them don't even know it."
Doug Austin, executive director of the Fish and Boat Commission, said even many hunters and anglers don't know where their license fees are going.
"The general public is relatively naive about how the whole system works," he said.
"There's a large percentage of people who don't realize what the Game Commission and Fish and Boat Commission actually do," Mr. Bonner said, "or that they're funded almost entirely by license fees from hunters and fishermen and the use of state game lands. ... They're in a tough position."
Game Commission executive director Carl Roe is more succinct: "Eight percent of the population is paying for wildlife that is enjoyed by 100 percent of the population."
Rick Garstka, president of the Pennsylvania Cross Country Skier's Association, said he had no idea that members of his group and other outdoor enthusiasts weren't chipping in for the cost of managing wildlife.
"I've always assumed it was coming out of our taxes somehow," he said.
Under state law, the Game and Fish and Boat commissions are Pennsylvania's sole wildlife management agencies, charged with maintaining the health of all wildlife. By charter, they keep populations of key species in check through habitat enhancement and manipulation of hunting, trapping and fishing seasons and bag limits -- in effect, using hunters and anglers as tools of wildlife management.
The Game Commission's budget for 2009-10 is about $80.5 million, a figure that has remained relatively unchanged for several years. In the 2008-09 fiscal year, about 51 percent of its revenue came from license sales.
Estimated 2009-10 revenue generated by the federal Pittman-Robertson Act excise tax on hunting equipment and ammunition, which is included in the overall budget, is $10.5 million. About 7.5 percent in 2008-09 came from gas and oil leases on 305 state game lands purchased largely with money from license fees.
"In our Diversity Section, biologists deal with 465 species including bats, songbirds and flying squirrels," Mr. Roe said. "We hunt 40 species."
About 67 percent of the Fish and Boat Commission's $61 million 2009-10 operating budget comes from license fees. About 15 percent comes from the Dingell-Johnson Act federal sales tax on fishing equipment.
Each agency received about $1.2 million annually in federal wildlife grants. Additional federal grants are linked to specific projects.
In the 20th century, sporting groups lobbied Congress to tax hunting and fishing gear to help fund wildlife management. Hunters pay a tax of 11 percent on purchases of sporting arms and ammunition, and anglers pay 10 percent on fishing tackle. No targeted excise tax is applied to sporting goods that are not related to hunting or fishing.
The state mirrors a national trend of declining hunters and anglers, with a corresponding drop in license fees and excise taxes. At the same time, the commissions are spending more each year on projects benefiting nongame species and expect to spend more in the future.
In 1978-79, the Game Commission spent 0.25 percent of its budget directly on nongame species. By 2008-09, the figure had grown to 2.87 percent. Spokesman Jerry Feaser said those figures come with a caveat.
"There are many indirect costs that are not captured," he said, "such as ... habitat work that benefits many species."
"Today, we're doing a lot more than in the past," said Game Commission wildlife management director Calvin DuBrock. "In the 1970s and 1980s less than 0.5 percent of the annual budget targeted endangered species and nonhunted species.
"We're now approaching 3 percent of annual expenditures, or about a 500 percent increase," Mr. DuBrock said. "While still much of our attention is focused on endangered and threatened species, we've certainly broadened the suite of species and habitats that are being addressed."
Improving habitat for all wildlife species was the goal of the Game Commission's controversial deer management plan, which, contrary to the desires of many Pennsylvania hunters, intentionally reduced the deer population in parts of the state.
Mr. Feaser noted that although the costly deer plan was intended to benefit all species, it is not included in expenditures for nongame species.
The Audubon's Mr. Bonner said with fewer deer eating the habitat, many plant and animal species, including birds sought by his group's members, are thriving in areas that were once overbrowsed. And the Fish and Boat Commission's management of nongame mussels, reptiles, bait fish and many threatened and endangered species benefits all Pennsylvanians, he said.
"Management for a healthy ecosystem, including managing deer to a self-sustaining level, benefits all animals. For hunters, there are not as many deer, but a healthier herd," he said. "The benefits of creating a more diverse and healthier ecosystem are enjoyed by a broader amount of people and add to the quality of life in Pennsylvania."
But Pennsylvanians aren't sharing equally in the cost of wildlife management, and both wildlife agencies are searching for funding. An unpopular option: increasing hunting and fishing license fees.
Pennsylvania anglers pay $22.70 for an adult resident fishing license. Fish and Boat Commissioner Leonard Lichvar, of Somerset County said commissioners are talking about seeking legislative approval for raising license fees. Only the Legislature can change license fees for both commissions.
"By 2011, Fish and Boat will run a deficit -- we'll red line," he said. "We haven't had an increase in some time. We've requested incrementally going up a dollar a year, rather than nothing for eight or 10 years and then a big jump.
"Unfortunately, because of the [recent state] budget impasse, they're not interested in any kind of increase."
The cost of a Pennsylvania adult resident hunting license is $20.70. Ohio and West Virginia charge $19, and New York charges $29. Pennsylvania's license fee hasn't changed in 11 years, but state Rep. David Levdansky, D-Forward, said legislative approval of a license-fee increase is unlikely.
Some hunters and anglers are opposed to funding the agencies with money from the state's general fund, fearing legislators who don't hunt or fish would have increased influence on spending. But last year, Mr. Levdansky, a member of the House Game and Fish Committee and chairman of the House Finance Committee, sponsored an unsuccessful bill that would have transferred a small percentage of all state sales tax revenue to the Game and Fish and Boat commissions.
"Other states have done funding like this," he said. "I put that bill in during the last session; I have not reintroduced it in this session. With the dire financial straits we're in, we're not going to pass legislation to earmark the sales tax for anything but supporting the general fund.
"The bottom line here is I think sportsmen are carrying their fair share of the load," he said. "We need new money, alternative financing measures."
This year, Mr. Levdansky said he is focused on building a coalition of legislators who would support charging a severance tax for the removal of natural gas from the Marcellus shale formation, a deep and largely untapped energy source that some geologists believe could become the nation's most prolific gas field.
Pennsylvania landowners, including several state agencies, currently charge drillers for surface access.
"Pennsylvania is the only state that produces Marcellus shale that doesn't charge a severance tax," said Mr. Levdansky. "I think in the next session we can get it."
Mr. Levdansky said provisions would be written into law directing some revenue to the Game and Fish and Boat commissions and to a fund for remediation of waterways impacted by the release of dissolved solids in water used in drilling.
The severance fee is supported by Mr. Austen and Mr. Roe, with some reservations.
"What can be written into a law can be written out later," he said. "And adding the tax could affect our existing deals on state game land [surface] leases."
First Published January 17, 2010 12:00 am