Reader Rant: The DFG Budget: Is Anyone Out There Paying Attention?

Do you know someone who has quit hunting or fishing in California in the past decade? We all do.

I like to say that fish and wildlife exist today in California despite the Department of Fish and Game (DFG), not because of its efforts.

It all relates to DFG budget manipulation and mismanagement of funds. The agency’s decline starts and ends with wildlife, and its support of hunting and fishing programs is getting an increasingly short end of the budget stick.

Sportsmen are responsible for about 45 percent of the DFG’s annual budget through the payment of license and tag fees and federal excise taxes, yet only 21 percent of the DFG’s budget is spent on game and fish programs today. Once upon a time, these programs received 100 percent of that money.

Even if we include all DFG law enforcement activities under expenditures that benefit wildlife and the sportsmen who pay the bills (although wardens should not be completely paid for by license fees), we still only get 35 percent of the total budget.

Many in the agency correctly argue that other DFG programs indirectly benefit fish and game programs. But it could just as reasonably be argued that many of these other programs are counterproductive and often are directly at odds with good game and fish management programs.

In addition to spending money on activities that do not directly benefit sportsmen and wildlife, the DFG is not using all the federal funds it is entitled to receive.

Of the $71 million in federal funds received by the DFG, the two biggest allocations come from a pair of landmark laws that charge excise taxes on sporting equipment and allocate it back to the states.

The state’s allocation of Pittman-Robertson (P-R) funds (excise taxes on sporting arms and ammunition) is a little over $11 million each year. Based on the allocation system for P-R funds, which is derived from a state’s landmass and population compared to other states, California should be receiving about $36 million annually from this fund.

We lose most of these funds because our state can’t or won’t come up with the mandatory 25 percent matching funds for projects in game programs or game lands, because that money is allocated to other programs — programs apparently far more important than game programs, even though hunters are getting a pittance of their investment back in wildlife research, management and enhancement.

We are receiving the maximum allocation from the Dingell-Johnson fund (excise taxes on fishing tackle and boats) at just over $20 million each year, but much of that money has been earmarked for salmon and steelhead hatcheries in solid ongoing programs for decades. The DFG would have to make a concerted effort to screw this up.

The bottom line is, the DFG loses more than $35 million a year in federal funding because it won’t support game and fish programs to a higher level.

The DFG has also lost funding because of declining hunting and fishing license sales. Annual resident fishing license sales dropped below 1 million for the first time in 2011. Annual license sales were around 2.2 million annually in the late 1970s and into the 1980s.

If the DFG grossed about $40 million on all fishing license sales in 2011, simple math would indicate we’d have at least $80 million selling the same numbers of licenses today that we sold in the late 1970s.

In the late 1960s and in 1970, we were selling about 700,000 hunting licenses. In 2011, we sold about 240,000 annual licenses. That’s $9.5 million in annual license fees and a total of $21.2 million for all tag, stamp and application fees paid by those 240,000 hunters. If we still had 700,000 hunters in California, the total revenue would have to be in the $60 million range.

These license sale losses have accumulated while the state’s population has skyrocketed. If license sales had grown proportionally with the state’s population since 1970, just imagine what the revenue for the DFG would be today.

The bottom line is that the DFG has effectively sliced its sporting funding in half through lost license sales — and this is what happens when you ignore game and fish programs and the sportsmen your agency was created to serve.

What is a conservative estimate on how much money the DFG could — and should — be bringing in on hunting and fishing license revenue with a good, aggressive game and fish management program?

Licenses, tags and stamps brought in $61 million in 2011. We should have more than $140 million coming in.

Federal excise taxes are $71 million today. We should be receiving at least $105 million.

So, instead of the DFG’s current $185 million, the income should be more like $245 million. If there had actually been growth in the number of license holders — growth in concert with the state’s population, which has doubled since 1970 — the revenue would be in the $500 million range.

A final reminder: The DFG’s total annual budget today is right around $400 million, including all the non-game, vegetation and invasive species programs; law enforcement staff; oil spill prevention and response teams; and on and on. But remember: Game and fish programs amount to just 21 percent of the DFG’s current budget.

Is it any wonder many fishermen and hunters are giving up on California?

So, what’s the solution?

The world is different today than four decades ago, when the DFG was flush with money and did everything it wanted for sportsmen — and more. There was even money left over to do non-game and endangered species work with sporting money back then. Today, the agency has more lawyers and administrators than it does scientists, because it spends as much time in court as it does in the field.

It’s time for everyone who enjoys wildlife and wild places to pony up, instead of making sportsmen pay the lion’s share of the bill. There are two parts to the solution: First, all hunting and fishing license dollars need to be rededicated to only game and fish programs. Second, the DFG needs a new, permanent funding mechanism for its other programs.

There are two valid models that could accomplish that goal. The first alternative is an annual outdoor user fee. Everyone who does anything from bird-watching to hiking to mountain biking on any public land would have to purchase an annual license and the money would go to the DFG, which manages those natural resources for those users. Just as fishermen and hunters pay a fee, other outdoor users (under this plan) would also have to pay a fee to enjoy those same resources.

The second alternative is an added state sales tax on outdoor gear to fund the DFG’s broad range of conservation programs statewide, paid for by everyone in the state who buys a wide range of wildlife or outdoor-based products — from wild bird seed to binoculars to backpacking and mountain climbing gear.

Whatever outdoor-user funding alternative you prefer — whether a simple user fee or an excise tax — all I know is that fishermen and hunters shouldn’t have to keep paying for far more than they receive from the DFG.

We deserve Crowley Lake-style trout management in waters all over the state. We need more tule elk on public lands. We need more desert water sources for wildlife. We need a lot of things for the state’s fish and hunted game species.

As sportsmen, instead of being discriminated against each time we dig into our wallets, we need to see a return on our investment — and not excuses for dismal management.

Jim Matthews
Outdoor News Service

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