The sales of sportsmen licenses fell almost 50 percent between 1997 and 2017, according to a report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum, raising concerns about the financial stability of the state’s wildlife conservation efforts.
The report, published a week before the opening of the 2018 deer-gun hunting season, outlined a 6 percent decrease in deer license sales as well.
According to data provided by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 774,332 licenses were sold this year as of midnight Friday, down 2.5 percent from 2017. The DNR did see an uptick in licenses sold during the week before this year’s gun-deer season opener, but if the upward trend does not continue, the financial burden on conservation programs will increase in the long term.
“The groups of hunters we’ve been relying on to fund them are getting older and older, and at a certain point, which tends to be the ages of 65 to 70, these hunters become physically unable to pursue the sport,” said Jason Stein, research director for the Wisconsin Policy Forum. “If there’s not someone to replace them, then this state has either got to cut back on those programs or find different funding sources.”
Stein attributes the lower number of licenses sold to a range of factors, from an increase in urbanization to the rise of electronics and decreased interest in outdoor sportsman activities. Stagnant licensing fees in the face of inflation over the years has also increased the funding gap.
A decline in license sales led to annual funding gaps from $4 million to $6 million in recent years, according to a memorandum published on Jan. 3, 2017, by the DNR to the Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee. Funding cuts included reduced personnel by 144 employees — or close to 21 percent — in habitat management, warden patrols, invasive species control and fish stocking among other measures, to avoid overspending during the past six years.
The memorandum outlines a variety of ways to fill the funding gap, from new licensing options to introducing fees to access state wildlife areas among others, but the Wisconsin State Assembly has not taken legislative action according to the office of Sen. Alberta Darling, who requested the DNR report.
No changes have been made to the Fish and Wildlife portion of the 2017-19 state budget in response to the decline in license revenue, according to a DNR spokesman, and measures have been put in place within the agency to remedy the funding gap.
Once this year’s hunting and fishing licenses numbers are in, the new administration will have a better handle on how it would like to budget for the next biennium, said the DNR spokesman.
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this report.
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