Jim Williams is stepping into the supervisor role for the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional office in Northwest Montana at a critical time.
The agency is managing a growing suite of animals and fish species, including sensitive populations such as bull trout and wolves.
Yet at the same time, stagnant funding levels are no longer adequate to sustain FWP’s everyday operations and the agency faces a $5.75 million shortfall in fiscal year 2017, according to the state.
Williams, who was promoted to Region 1 chief earlier this month after serving as regional wildlife manager for the past 15 years, said he would devote himself to community outreach and building relationships in the coming months to ensure separate groups and interests can work together in dealing with a host of issues and situations.
“Everyone is super passionate about fish and wildlife and recreation and access and parks. That’s why a lot of folks live here,” Williams said. “I think you can only move conservation programs forward if you have buy-in from the public and support from your peers. And that takes face time and one-on-one work.”
Williams is inviting local lawmakers to attend an open house event on Dec. 9 to inform them of the current situation and ensure everyone understands the agency and its array of operations.
The agency is planning for potential program reductions unless the upcoming Legislature approves cost increases in fishing and hunting licenses.
Following an internal review and series of public meetings across the state, FWP is seeking to increase fishing licenses by $3 and hunting licenses by $8 annually. Also, seniors would receive a discounted license at age 67 instead of the current age, 62, and the price for most free and discounted licenses would be standardized at 50 percent of normal price.
A general deer license for residents currently costs $16. An elk tag costs $20. A conservation license, which is a prerequisite for all licenses, costs $8 for residents. An annual fishing license for residents ages 15-61 costs $8.
The last fee increase for Montana’s general resident hunting and fishing license was in 2005 and in 2003 for nonresidents. However, the last increase did not significantly benefit revenues for FWP, likely because of the high number of discounted licenses offered to several types of hunters, including seniors and students. The agency has estimated that roughly $4 million in potential revenue is lost to discounted licenses.
“You can’t run a business without raising your prices for almost 15 years,” Williams said. “But we take it seriously because $3 and $8 is a lot of money for some folks and we know that. It’s critical for the agency, though.”
The state’s fish and wildlife management programs are primarily funded through the sale of fishing and hunting licenses. Nonresidents contribute roughly 70 percent of those revenues, according to FWP. The remaining one-third comes primarily from federal taxes on hunting and fishing equipment. Less than one half of one percent of FWP’s budget comes from the state’s general fund.
“Whether you agree with everything FWP does or not, if that’s your passion — hunting, fishing, seeing wildlife — it’s pretty important that you have an agency that’s funded and can do their job,” Williams said. “Otherwise we will be cutting staff.”
The agency acknowledges several factors are contributing to the potential revenue shortfall, including inflation and additional responsibilities.
A primary — and worrisome — trend is the declining sales of hunting licenses, which are being linked to several events, including the harsh winters of 2010 and 2011 when deer and antelope populations were dramatically impacted, resulting in fewer tags for sale. There is also the perception of the negative impact wolves and other predators are having on hunting opportunity, according to FWP.
Nonresident licenses have not sold out for the past five years.
So far this hunting season, roughly 600 fewer hunters have been reported at check stations in Northwest Montana compared to this time last year. The 11,233 hunters checked is the second lowest total in the last five years behind 2012, when there were 11,094.
A citizen’s advisory council was tasked with considering changes to Montana’s hunting and fishing licenses and fees and the group held public meetings across the state and gathered input. According to the group, a majority of people who provided comments expressed support for the recommended increases.
“The overriding message from supporters was that the proposed changes are reasonable given the quality of fishing and hunting opportunities in Montana, and the importance of managing fish and wildlife to ensure there will be similar opportunities for future generations of Montanans and visitors,” the advisory council’s summary report stated.
The report did acknowledge there was opposition to the increases, largely because of concerns that the price hikes would result in fewer people purchasing licenses. Also, there was concern that the trend of increasing costs could lead to “hunting becoming a rich man’s sport.”