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COLUMBUS -- Is it a matter of being fiscally responsible, or is something else in the works?
Is there a rift building in Columbus between the Department of Natural Resources and the Division of Wildlife?
ODNR deputy director Matt Eiselstein says it's no more than prudent decision making, based on stemming the tide of declining hunting and fishing numbers.
The situation came to a head this past week when the ODNR came out in opposition to the Division of Wildlife's consideration of resident hunting and fishing license fee increases.
The Division of Wildlife, which is basically funded through hunting and fishing license sales (DOW's website says 95 of every $100 it spends comes from sportsmen), has not increased hunting and fishing license fees since they were raised to $19 in 2004.
Ironically, many outdoor organizations and sportsmen in Ohio understand that a fee increase is needed for the division to maintain its service to them. However, the ODNR, of which the Division of Wildlife is underneath, wants no part of an increase, despite Ohioans saying they would gladly pay more to keep wildlife officers in the field, and continue stocking programs, habitat enhancement, research and land and wildlife management.
"Our responsibility is giving the sportsmen of Ohio the appropriate bang for their buck," said Eiselstein. "We want to make the changes necessary before we ask for more money."
Division of Wildlife chief Ray Petering earlier this month noted in a Columbus Dispatch article that "doing 2017 programs with 2004 money," is a challenge for the division, then sent me a statement this past week, that read: "At this time, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife does not support a license fee increase on Ohio's hunters and anglers. While we appreciate the support of our sportsmen, we are seeking efficiencies and savings within the Department that will result in a higher level of service, without raising license fees."
It doesn't take an Ivy League PHD to figure out something's up.
Eiselstein, though, says that's not the case.
"Historically, when we see an increase in license fees, participation numbers go down," said Eiselstein.
The deputy director noted that when the DOW raised hunting fees from $15 in 2003 to $19 in 2004, there were 15,000 less licenses bought the next year, 12,000 less the following year and 10,000 less the year after that. Ohio saw a similar decline in fishing license sales according to Eiselstein.
"The challenge is to get more people out there, that would bring in more dollars," said Eiselstein.
In trying to get the Division of Wildlife's perspective on the situation, employees told me they were not allowed to comment on the issue, and referred me to Eiselstein.
While there are plenty of unanswered questions, one interesting fact is that in 2015, Ohio auditor Dave Yost, independent of the Department of Natural Resources and Division of Wildlife, actually recommended to ODNR chief James Zehringer that license fee increases were indeed needed. At the time, Zehringer said he would consider the request.
The issue, though, could be much deeper than license fees.
Should sportsmen be worried that changes are coming, changes that may not be best for the sportsmen, and certainly not for the DOW. Could the Division of Wildlife get incorporated into another ODNR division, could wildlife officers be replaced and stocking programs and wildlife research get axed?
"I don't know that that's been discussed," said Eiselstein when asked that very question. "I've never heard that.
"We combined watercraft with parks (in 2015), if we were going to do anything with wildlife, that's when we would have done it."
The Division of Wildlife is the cash cow in the umbrella of divisions that make up the ODNR. The Division of Wildlife brings in some $60 million in fees and permits and maybe the ODNR would like to share some of those funds with parks or forestry, divisions that receive the bulk of their funding through the general fund (taxes).
In all, there are 10 divisions within the ODNR, which was formed by the Ohio Legislature in 1949. The Division of Wildlife's roots go back much further, as the Ohio Fish Commission was formed in 1873 by the General Assembly, and over time, its role has expanded to include all of Ohio's wildlife management.
As for the campaign to increase fees, the Sportsmen's Alliance is taking that lead, but is not alone as 22 other outdoor organizations in Ohio also support the plan. Those include: the Ohio Conservation Federation; Ohio Chapter, National Wild Turkey Federation; National Wild Turkey Federation; Ducks Unlimited Ohio; Pheasants Forever; Buckeye Big Buck Club; Ohio State Trappers Association; Lake Erie Charter Boat Association; Ohio Bowhunters Association; Ohio Bass Federation; Ohio Husky Musky Club; League of Ohio Sportsmen; Trout Unlimited; Ruffed Grouse Society; Rocky Brands; National Wildlife Federation; Gallia County Conservation Club; Quail Forever; Turn-In-Poacher; SW Ohio Chapter Safari Club International; Northern Ohio Chapter Safari Club International; and the Stark County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.
"In 2003, Ohio sportsmen and women promised then-Governor Bob Taft that if he raised license fees that the funds would last for at least 10 years," said Luke Houghton, associate director of state services for the Sportsmen's Alliance. "We've gone well past that mark now, and it's time to take action. Rising healthcare costs and other increases over the past 14 years have taken their toll on the services sportsmen and women, and all Ohioans, have come to rely upon. We're asking Governor Kasich and the legislature to address this need by raising license fees."
In Ohio alone, hunting and fishing is a $4.1 billion industry.
"Without an increase however, customer satisfaction will continue to drop, and the hunting and fishing economies with it," explained Houghton. "Fortunately, this is all preventable because Ohio's outdoor community is willing to pay for the needed improvements."
At the crux of the fee increases is raising the cost for non-resident hunting licenses and deer permits. At the current $149 rate, Ohio is the lowest in the country, and that's why some 40,000 non-residents flock to the Buckeye state each fall to hunt whitetails and lease land. The Sportsmen's Alliance is suggesting an increase to $250, which is still well below the average cost of $393 for other "high-quality" deer states. Eiselstein said the ODNR's stance on fee increases is only associated with resident sportsmen, not non-resident.
The increase in resident hunting and fishing licenses is suggested to be just $3. In hunting licenses alone, that would add roughly $1.2 million to the DOW's budget, while the non-resident hunters increase would be add an additional $4 million.
In fishing license sales, it would mean roughly another $2.4 million in resident license monies. Ohio also sells some 95,000 non-resident fishing licenses each year, some at the $19 three-day tourist rate, others at the $40 non-resident annual rate.
"We appreciate these groups coming forward," said Eiselstein, "but it's important that we examine our internal options. ... When it comes to the groups supporting this (fee increase), they don't completely know the inner workings that happen here. There's a lot more to it."
My guess in all this --there is a lot more to it.