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ODFW considers rollbacks in license fees

State fish and wildlife managers are mulling whether to drop a scheduled fee increase for fishing and hunting licenses in 2021 and possibly even roll back some fees next year, thanks to what they call better-than-expected revenues and a leaner budget.

And that’s not an early April Fool’s joke.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is rolling out its 2019-21 draft budget, which includes the potential fee rollback, as well as an option to enact the raises as planned and put the money toward enhancing current programs.

Other possibilities include cutting some 2019 costs for fishing and hunting licenses, which were increased in 2016 and this year under a three-step fee hike enacted by the 2015 Oregon Legislature.

“We’ve said if we ever have an opportunity to roll back our fee increases, we’d do it,” said Michael Finley of Medford, who is chair of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission.

“Right now there’s good intent to do that, but it’s really preliminary.”

The agency will offer its potential budget package, which it bills as largely similar to the current two-year budget, during public meetings across Oregon during the first two weeks of April.

A meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 5, in the Adams Room of the Medford library, 205 S. Central Ave.

Public comment will be taken at the meeting. Comments also will be taken via email through May 1 at ODFW.TownHallComments@state.or.us.

The budget proposal is being drafted with the help of an external budget advisory committee. A final proposal will be sent in late summer to Gov. Kate Brown, and the 2019 Oregon Legislature ultimately will adopt the budget.

Since the first fee increase was enacted in 2016, fishing license sales have declined by 8.5 percent but revenues were up 3.7 percent in 2017 compared to the previous four-year average.

Sales of hunting licenses dropped 3.5 percent, but the revenue was up 4.8 percent. Sales of combination hunting-fishing licenses were down 3.6 percent, but revenue increased by 4.7 percent.

“It didn’t have the impact on (license) sales of previous fee increases,” said Roger Fuhrman, administrator of ODFW’s Information and Education Division. “If you look at the revenue trends from the past several decades, there is a difference. It’s a good position to be in.”

Cost savings came from getting out of an expensive lease for the agency’s Salem headquarters and reducing its vehicle fleet and staff levels, which this year includes 1,154 full-time equivalent positions, Fuhrman said.

If the agency decided to seek a budget that included the fee increase, about $6 million would be added to the two-year budget, Fuhrman said. That money could be plowed back into programs instead of back into hunters’ and anglers’ wallets.

Whether ODFW should pay back hunters and anglers or reinvest that extra money has been a topic of discussion among members of the Oregon Hunters Association, the largest hunting advocacy group in the state.

Some members see backing off fees as “a nice, goodwill gesture” that also would help keep more hunters and anglers in the fold, said OHA spokesman Duane Dungannon in Medford. Others would like to see more funding toward things like law enforcement, the Turn In Poachers program and beefed-up big-game management, he said.

Fuhrman said that, despite this short-term budget balloon, the agency still expects it will need to seek a license fee increase by the 2021-23 biennium.

The current two-year ODFW budget is about $374.8 million, of which one-quarter was paid by general license fees. Federal dollars make up 38 percent, which is the highest single contributor. General funds cover 8 percent.

The agency also is considering whether to ask the Legislature for general-fund money beginning next year, such as $2.7 million for restoring salmon and steelhead to the upper Klamath Basin after removal of Klamath River dams, and $1.8 million for surveying and monitoring ocean groundfish stocks such as black rockfish and cabezon.

Other possible requests include $1.17 million toward managing Oregon’s growing gray wolf population, and $430,000 toward addressing sea lion predation on federally protected winter steelhead in the Willamette Basin.

If all those were added, the budget would increase to about $420 million, with a workforce of just under 2,000 employees, Fuhrman said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.