By Jeff Alexander/Bridge Magazine contributor
Much has changed in Michigan since 1997: Gasoline prices have tripled, food prices increased more than 40 percent and health-care costs have skyrocketed.
It seems that everything costs more today than it did 16 years ago — unless you hunt or fish in Michigan. The price of hunting and fishing licenses here hasn’t increased since then.
Michigan’s hunting and fishing licenses now rank among the nation’s cheapest, according to a Bridge analysis of hunting and fishing license data from all 50 states. This, despite the fact that Michigan has 11,000 inland lakes, 36,000 miles of streams, frontage on four of the five Great Lakes, some of America’s best fisheries and more registered hunters (795,000) than Wyoming has residents (576,000).
The current hunting and fishing license fees are analogous to getting prime rib for the price of a Big Mac: It’s great for bargain seekers, but a losing proposition for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources — the agency responsible for managing the state’s vast fisheries and abundant wildlife populations.
That could change next year.
Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2014 budget includes a proposal to increase the price of many of Michigan’s hunting and fishing licenses. The higher fees would generate $18 million annually, allowing the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to add conservation officers, put more fisheries and wildlife biologists to work in the field and improve fish and wildlife habitat.
“I think (the fee package) is reasonable and I think sportsmen will go along with it if they know that the DNR is using license fees to support hunting and fishing,” said Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican and frequent DNR critic.
DNR Director Keith Creagh said the fee package has a good chance of being approved by state lawmakers because hunting and fishing groups sought higher license fees and would lobby for their passage.
But Erin McDonough, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said DNR officials must do a better job of documenting how the agency spends license revenue. Those funds are supposed to go back into fish and wildlife programs.
“It’s critical for people to be able to understand the outcomes of how their license dollars are being spent, so they have the trust to say, ‘I’m willing to pay more,’” McDonough said.
A 2006 proposal to raise the license fees died in the Legislature.
McDonough said the fee package unveiled last week has a better chance of being approved because the DNR is now more open with its finances and works more cooperatively with groups that support hunting, fishing and other recreational activities.
The 2006 proposal died after DNR officials revealed the agency had more money in its Game & Fish Protection Fund than it had acknowledged. The National Rifle Association took credit for defeating the proposal and vowed to fight any future attempts to increase hunting license fees in Michigan.
The NRA did not respond to a request from Bridge for comment on Snyder’s license fee package.
World-class recreation at cut-rate prices
Michigan residents currently pay $15 for the right to shoot a deer; it’s the third cheapest deer-hunting license in America. An all-species fishing license for state residents costs $28, which ranks 26th nationally, according to Bridge’s analysis.
Under Gov. Snyder’s proposal, the cost of a firearm deer license would increase from $15 to $30 for residents (which includes a $10 base fee for all hunting licenses), and rise from $138 to $170 for nonresidents. Senior citizens would pay $12 for deer license under the plan, double the current fee of $6.
All Michigan anglers would pay $25 for an all-species fishing license under the proposed DNR budget, down from the current $28 fee. The basic fishing license, which currently costs $15 and provides a lower cost alternative for anglers not interested in catching trout or salmon, would be replaced by the $25 all-species license.
Even at the higher prices the Snyder administration has proposed, Michigan’s license fees would still be far from the nation’s most expensive.
The $30 proposed for a resident deer-hunting license, for example, would make Michigan’s rate the 18th most expensive in the nation. The proposed nonresident fee for a deer hunting license, $170, would rank 29th nationally, according to Bridge’s analysis.
The proposed $25 all-species fishing license fee for Michigan residents would be the nation’s 32nd most expensive. The $75 proposed for a nonresident, all-species license would rank 11th nationally.
Kansas charges its residents the most for an all-species fishing license, $57.50. Alaska charges nonresidents the most for an all-species license, $245.
California charges its residents the most for a deer hunting license, $74.85. The state of Washington charges nonresidents the most to hunt for deer, $531.
The growing importance of license sales
Hunting and fishing license revenue is particularly significant in Michigan, due to dramatic DNR budget changes over the past decade.
Since 2000, the Legislature has reduced general fund support for the DNR by 75 percent. This year, the state’s general fund accounts for just 6 percent, or $19.7 million, of the DNR’s $338 million budget.
The DNR now gets much of its money from license and permit sales. Revenue from fishing and hunting license sales goes into the Game & Fish Protection Fund, which supports programs that improve fishing and hunting opportunities.
But the shrinking number of hunters and anglers nationally, and in Michigan, has hurt license sales and meant less money for the DNR. The year-end balance of the Game & Fish Fund decreased by nearly 50 percent over the past decade, from $18.1 million in 2002 to $9.7 million last year, according to DNR data.
Years of budget cuts — coupled with stagnant license fees, decreasing license sales and rising inflation — have reduced the DNR’s spending power by 47 percent since 2002, agency officials said.
It’s been a long time since we’ve had a license-fee increase, and in that time we’ve had inflation, rising gas prices and other expenses increased,” said Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Trout Unlimited’s Michigan chapter. “The DNR needs more money, but the agency also needs to be more focused and prioritize things.”
Flagging revenue is jeopardizing fisheries and putting wildlife at greater risk of being killed by poachers, according to state officials and conservation leaders interviewed by Bridge. Consider:
* Three counties have no assigned DNR conservation officers. That puts fish and wildlife in those unidentified counties at greater risk of poaching.
* The DNR recently closed its Hunt Creek fisheries research station near Atlanta and didn’t replace the two biologists there who retired. For decades, biologists at the facility produced groundbreaking research that informed fishing regulations on many Michigan trout streams.
* Budget cuts forced the DNR to reduce coho salmon stocking several years ago. A department official said there was no biological basis for the decision; it was driven strictly by financial considerations.
Creagh said additional license revenue would improve fisheries and wildlife habitat and bolster Michigan’s image as a haven for outdoor enthusiasts.
“Between hunting, fishing, our state parks system, trails systems, access to the Great Lakes, certainly Michigan doesn’t have to take a back seat to anybody on world-class resources,” Creagh said.
Jeff Alexander is owner of J. Alexander Communications LLC and the author of “Pandora’s Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Seaway.” A former staff writer for the Muskegon Chronicle, Alexander writes a blog on the Great Lakes at http://allthingsgreatlakes.wordpress.com/.