Fewer deer hunting licenses tied to decreased conservation funding

Just ahead of opening weekend for deer gun hunting season in Wisconsin, a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum finds the number of deer licenses dropping in the state.

That’s linked to a decrease in funding for state conservation efforts, which preserve resources that support the state’s hunting industry.

A fact sheet from the state Department of Natural Resources shows hunters spend about $2.5 billion each year in Wisconsin, with most of that going to equipment. Wisconsin has the second-highest number of resident and non-resident hunters in the country, and 88 percent of those hunters are gunning for deer.

The WPF report shows total deer licenses dropped 5.8 percent between 1999 and 2017, to 824,475. That’s bad news for remaining hunters, as Wisconsin uses state and federal revenues from hunters and anglers to pay for its natural resources management. One study by the DNR found 90 percent of the state fish and wildlife budget comes from state licenses and federal taxes.

The DNR manages 600 public properties covering more than 680,000 acres using those funding sources. The agency also stocks fish, pays wardens, reimburses farmers for wildlife damage and conducts research with the funds.

The number of deer licenses has fallen in Wisconsin as the population of the state becomes less rural and more urban and suburban. And the number of “sportsmen” licenses — which combine deer, fishing and other small game — has fallen even more, by about 50 percent.

Report authors point to some potential factors such as less access to hunting land, fewer youth instructors, and the state’s demographics leaning toward urban growth and diversity. It’s noted in the report that existing hunters are also spending fewer days out in the woods as they grow older.

While deer hunting licenses diminished between 1999 and 2017, fishing license sales have grown by 3.6 percent over the same period, to 1.29 million. However, the state population grew nearly three times faster than anglers during that period, “suggesting anglers are shrinking as a share of the state population.”

Between 2006 and 2015, overall state hunting and fishing license revenue fell from $81.8 million to $65.5 million, the report shows. The 2006 number is adjusted for inflation.

That decrease is linked to shortfalls in the state Fish and Wildlife Account — up to $6 million between budgeted spending and actual revenues in recent years. And the number of full-time DNR staff that are paid from that account dropped by about 21 percent between 1999 and 2017.

WPF report authors say policymakers could balance spending cuts and new revenue sources in order to shore up the Fish and Wildlife Account. Some strategies include adjusting fees for inflation; reducing or totally cutting discounts for first-time hunters and seniors; expanding learn-to-hunt programs; and doing more to engage inactive hunters.

Additionally, they suggest state officials should tap hikers or birdwatchers with fees for state wildlife programs. Authors say Wisconsin could follow other states’ example and charge admission to natural areas that are separate from state parks that currently have fees; add fees for non-motorized watercraft like canoes; or use some of the state’s sales tax or lottery revenue.

See the report here: http://wispolicyforum.org/focus/under-the-gun-on-conservation-funding/

–By Alex Moe