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Cash-strapped ODFW searching for new director

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's new director will take over in the middle of an immediate budget crisis and a long-term identity crisis.

Years of declining participation in hunting and fishing has a left the agency in a perpetual financial bind, with stagnant revenue from licenses and fees leaving a $32 million budget gap over the next two years.

The shortfall has resulted in the agency's bosses proposing job cuts, more expensive fishing and hunting licenses and asking the Legislature for general fund dollars to cover the rest. Gov. John Kitzhaber has asked state lawmakers to declare an emergency and deploy a task force to hunt down new revenue sources for the cash-strapped agency.

"It's been a slow erosion over time," and it's not expected to improve, said Curt Melcher, ODFW's interim director, who is vying to stay in the role permanently.

The state Fish and Wildlife Commission is set to decide this week whether Melcher, ODFW fish division manager Edward Bowles or former National Fish & Wildlife Foundation regional director Krystyna Wolniakowski will inherit the job Roy Elicker left last September.

The incoming director will steer ODFW into an unclear future while facing pressure from environmentalists and sportsmen who both argue the agency is doing too little to meet their needs.

ODFW leaders, as well as their competing stakeholders, all agree on one thing: The current funding structure isn't working for anyone.

Not a new problem

Revenue from licenses and fees has long been ODFW's single biggest funding source. But while Oregon's population has grown, participation in consumptive outdoor sports has remained flat, or declined.

While 8.3 percent of the state's population bought hunting licenses in 2003, only 6.6 percent percent did a decade later.

The agency has relied upon periodic fee increases to keep revenue up despite the stagnation. The last fee increase came in 2009 and outdoorsmen are bracing for another round of hikes this year.

Even as license revenue has become an increasingly unreliable funding source, lawmakers since the early 1990s have continuously cut ODFW's share of the state budget. General fund dollars made up 12 percent of the agency's funding in 1990, and shrank to a low of 2 percent in the 2011-13 biennium.

As a result, the agency's reliance on hunters and fishermen grew despite their dwindling numbers.

By contrast, both California and Washington's fish and wildlife departments get 16 percent of their funding from the state general fund.

Despite the increasingly evident problems with the fee-based funding model, it now accounts for nearly a third of ODFW's budget. Factor in federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear that are funneled to state wildlife departments, and sportsmen subsidize well more than half of ODFW's work.

Oregon isn't alone in its funding problem. Fish and wildlife agencies across the U.S. are grasping for solutions as the North American model of sportsmen-funded conservation programming erodes.

"Most of the Western states are dealing with these same types of issues," Fish and Wildlife Commission Chair Michael Finley said.

The national Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencieshas formed a panel of experts to look for a new funding model that responds to declines in hunting and fishing revenue and "bridges the funding gap between game and nongame species."

In Oregon, Kitzhaber's task force would replicate that process. The governor wants members from conservation and outdoor interest groups, the state legislature and the general public to start working immediately to find new funding sources, then present the legislature with recommendations to change ODFW's budget structure.

For the next two years, Kitzhaber plans to increase ODFW's general fund allocation to lessen the severity of cuts and fee increases. Richard Whitman, the governor's natural resources advisor, stressed that's not a long-term strategy.

"The reality is, education, public services and health care are the big state budget drivers," he said.

Politics of conservation

ODFW's competing interest groups have latched upon the director's search as a way to gain influence. Their ideas of the ideal candidate are starkly different.

Sportsmen want someone who knows Oregon well and enjoys hunting or fishing. Environmentalists want someone with a strong science background — possibly an outsider.

"We want a show of good faith that they're committed to conservation," said Quinn Read, a wildlife coordinator with Oregon Wild.

They complain ODFW's heavy reliance on license revenue has given the hook and bullet communities too much sway with the agency, despite the fact that most Oregonians don't hunt or fish.

They say agency leaders dedicate too much of their limited funding to game-related programs, sometimes at the expense of broader conservation initiatives.

"They, through no intentional wish, got away from their mission of conservation," said Tom Wolf, executive director of the Oregon council of Trout Unlimited.

The governor agrees.

"It's a three-legged stool and the conservation leg of that stool is a little too short," said Whitman, Kitzhaber's natural resources advisor.

Although only 4 percent of ODFW's budget is targeted specifically for habitat and conservation, department leaders say it's impossible to accurately estimate how much is spent on game species versus the other 88 percent of Oregon's animals. For example, a license-funded program intended to restore a streambed for hatchery trout is likely to improve conditions for frogs and turtles, too.

"I don't think you can just draw a black line and say 'you pay for this, and you pay for this,'" fish and wildlife commissioner Bob Webber said. "There's a lot of gray area."

Melcher acknowledged an agency's commitment to "size license programs based on the revenue," but said he doesn't feel that undercuts conservation of non-game species.

Oregon Outdoor Council chairman Stan Steele agrees the agency doesn't spend enough on general conservation, but he says sportsmen are wrongly blamed for a problem caused by an underfunded agency. He says money generated from outdoorsmen's pocketbooks should stay in hunting and angling programs.

"Hunters are the original conservationists," he said, and they have a history of voluntarily shouldering the cost of conservation efforts that benefit all Oregonians. That's led to a system in which ODFW leans on hunters each time funding comes up short.

"Every time we raise the fees, some people leave hunting and fishing," he said.

He sees the need for a budget structure that makes up for that gradual loss without resorting to fee increases.

"If you look at when declines began, you can start seeing a business model that wasn't being updated," he said.

'A tremendous task'

Fish and Wildlife Commission members say the agency's financial future will factor heavily in their choice of a new director.

They're looking for a business-minded leader who knows a lot about raising and managing money. They also want someone who can balance competing priorities — possibly even find a way to unite outdoorsmen and conservationists under a shared goal.

"We don't want to have to be so concerned about how we're going to fund programs that everyone agrees we want to do," said Holly Akenson, a fish and wildlife commissioner who sits on the hiring team. The bulk of the agency's outreach efforts are still focused on recruiting new outdoorsmen with free hunting and fishing days, a youth mentorship program and other incentives. Melcher said a "habitat stamp" program aimed at giving conservationists a way to chip in "has not performed well."

Several bills in the Oregon Legislature represent an increased effort to raise money from the growing number of Oregonians who love the outdoors, but don't hunt or fish.

A tax on birdseed and a special conservation license plate have both been proposed as revenue generators. Another bill would allow applicants for state permits to pay a fee in exchange for faster processing of their paperwork. The proceeds would go to ODFW.

None of those programs would make up a $32 million shortfall.

The new director will be tasked with identifying bigger fixes while finding room in his or her budget to address a growing list of competing demands.

"To put all those pieces together is a tremendous task," Akenson said. "They'll have a lot of work to do."