State fish and wildlife managers are proposing to phase in an overall 26 percent increase to hunting and angling licenses and tags over five years to help fill a $32 million funding gap for wildlife conservation and management in the next fiscal year.

State fish and wildlife managers are proposing to phase in an overall 26 percent increase to hunting and angling licenses and tags over five years to help fill a $32 million funding gap for wildlife conservation and management in the next fiscal year.

The proposed fee increases are part of a 2015-17 budget proposal that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to unveil Thursday, kicking off the lengthy process of crafting a budget for the next fiscal year.

The fee increases would raise an estimated $8.5 million for the next two-year budget cycle, according to ODFW.

Along with the fee increases, the agency proposes cutting or not filling as many as 50 positions within the 1,262-employee agency, saving about $6.7 million.

ODFW managers also will seek more general-fund money from the Legislature to help pay for programs that benefit more than just hunters and anglers, tap into other funding sources, and increase efforts to recruit and keep more Oregonians on the hunting and angling rolls.

The proposed budget, including the proposed fee increases, will be presented Thursday to the agency's External Budget Advisory Committee, a public body that helps ODFW craft its budget proposals.

"There's sticker shock, obviously, with these," ODFW spokesman Richard Hargrave said. "It's not just a fee increase. That's just a piece of it.

"We're going to great lengths to make sure this isn't all on the backs of hunters and anglers," Hargrave said.

The proposed fee increases would start in 2016 and be adjusted every two years.

Phasing in the increases over three budget cycles was considered better than a one-time increase, based on feedback from the advisory committee and the public, Hargrave said.

Under the proposal, a resident angling license would jump from the current $33 to $38 in 2016, $41 in 2018 and $43 in 2020. A resident hunting license would go from $29.50 to $32 in 2016, $33 in 2018 and $34 in 2020.

The combined salmon/steelhead/sturgeon harvest tag would rise from its current $26.50 to $46 by 2020. All hunting tags or validations would increase 8 percent in 2016, 4 percent in 2018 and 3 percent in 2020.

The agency has not yet determined whether it will seek legislative approval on the three proposed increases at one time or just seek the 2016 increase in this budget cycle and come back with the others in subsequent years, Hargrave said.

"We're early on in the process," Hargrave said. "I imagine some of these numbers will change."

The proposal includes new multi-year licenses and a new $10 Ocean Endorsement for offshore fishing for all species but salmon, and would move the halibut tag from the combined tag.

Youth hunting-license structures would change under the proposal, which also includes special fish raffle/auction tags for unique fishing opportunities.

The proposal includes a new Premiere Hunt series that would offer tags for extended or statewide hunts, and proposes to keep the $8 controlled-hunt application fee unchanged.

Oregon's hunters and anglers, who last saw a fee increase in 2009, have steadily declined in numbers in the past three decades, and those who remain have begrudgingly accepted higher costs.

Medford hunter Chuck Smith, who serves on the advisory committee, said he "has trouble" supporting a fee increase so steep that it likely will price some current hunters and anglers out of the market.

ODFW already struggles to retain anglers, with 57 percent of licenses sold to repeat customers and 27 percent to anglers who didn't buy a license the previous year, ODFW statistics show. The remaining 16 percent are new anglers.

"It will do serious damage to the long-term customer base," Smith said. "Once you lose these people, it's awfully hard to get them back."

Smith said he can support a phased-in increase of 10 percent, which is the projected rate of inflation, he said.

"We can't keep raising fees at twice the rate of inflation," he said.

Smith suggested the difference be made up through the state general fund to cover non-consumptive programs that benefit all Oregonians but currently are carried by hunter and angler dollars.

The long-term solution, Smith said, is to grow the hunting and angling crowds instead of increasing costs to a shrinking constituency.

"It's a short-term fix verses a long-term cure," Smith said.

ODFW has scheduled a series of public meetings next month to vet its proposal. Meetings were planned May 28 in Roseburg and May 29 in Klamath Falls. No Medford meeting has been scheduled.

With 10,000 members, the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association is the state's largest hunting organization, and so far its leadership has not taken a position on the proposal.

"We're encouraging folks to go and speak up, but we're not telling them what to say," OHA spokesman Duane Dungannon said.

"I don't know if small increases will be palatable to the public," he said. "We'll see what they say."

Hunters and anglers historically have shouldered the largest part of ODFW's budget, with their fees accounting for just shy of half the agency's expenditures in the current budget. More than one third comes from federal excise taxes on such things as guns and ammunition, while just 5 percent comes from the general fund.

But their ranks have thinned over the decades, with anglers declining from about 600,000 in 1980 to about 500,000 today. The drop in licensed hunters has been steeper, from 400,000 in 1980 to about 240,000 today.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or