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Fee hike brings relief to DNR managers

Like their counterparts across the state, fisheries and wildlife managers in northwest Minnesota are breathing easier now that the Legislature has approved an increase in the cost of hunting and fishing licenses.

The increase became official Thursday night when Gov. Mark Dayton signed the Omnibus Game and Fish Bill, a wide-ranging piece of outdoors legislation lawmakers finally agreed on last weekend.

Without the increase, the Department of Natural Resources said its Game and Fish Fund would have gone into the red by July 2013. Funded primarily by hunting and fishing license dollars, the Game and Fish account pays for a variety of DNR fish, wildlife and enforcement programs.

As part of the fee hike lawmakers approved, resident hunting and fishing licenses will increase to $22 from $19 and $17, respectively. Nonresidents now will pay $45 for an annual fishing license and $103 for a small game license.

"The first thing it means is there's joy in most of our hearts," said John Williams, assistant regional wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji. "This was a hugely significant issue to the Game and Fish Fund."

According to C.B. Bylander, a DNR spokesman in St. Paul, the increase will keep the Game and Fish Fund in the black for the remainder of this biennium, which ends June 30, 2013. He said the increase will mean about $5 million in fiscal 2013 and about $10 million annually after that. The 2013 fiscal year begins July 1.

Williams, whose job includes budgeting for DNR wildlife operations in the Northwest Region and its 12 field offices, said filling critical vacancies and restoring surveys will be among the top priorities. Instead of cutting budgets, he said managers now can begin looking ahead to when the additional funding is available next March.

"We had been planning on extremely lean budgets, and for the first part of the fiscal year (2013), we'll stay that way," he said. "In Fiscal Year 2014, hopefully we will get back on track."

'Painful' cuts averted

Henry Drewes, regional fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, said the fee hike means he won't have to make "extremely painful" cuts to staff and programs this summer.

Instead, he'll be able to look toward to filling eight permanent staff vacancies across the region and rebuilding programs such as creel and fish population surveys that have fallen by the wayside in recent years.

"It allows us one year before the funds start coming in to start making some proposals to build some things back into our program," Drewes said. "It will allow us to build back some additional capacity with seasonal and temporary labor at our field offices. It will increase our ability to do surveys, population estimates and other things to keep our pulse on fish populations.

"We'll spend this summer putting a proposal together to build those programs."

Because of the looming budget shortfalls before the fee increase passed, Drewes said the DNR isn't stocking sturgeon fry into tributaries of the Red River this year. Getting the sturgeon recovery program back on track in the Red River watershed is a priority, he said.

So is the return of annual creel surveys on Lake of the Woods. A survey launched this past winter on the big lake is the first in four years.

"We won't have any other four-year gaps" between surveys, Drewes said.

Morale boost

Beyond the tangible benefits, the fee hike also stands to boost morale.

"It's just good to have that behind us," Williams said. "It was taking a lot of not only time, but there was a lot of angst. If that wouldn't have passed, where would that have left us?"

Williams, who left a position as area wildlife manager in Thief River Falls to become the assistant regional supervisor in 2006, said he had watched budgets fall steadily since taking the Bemidji job.

"Compared to 2006, our budgets were just a shoestring," Williams said. "They were really depleted in terms of what was going to area offices just in project dollars. It was getting down, last year, to the point where we gave just a little bit of money above the basic needs for the area offices. If we hadn't gotten the increase, I didn't know if we would be able to meet the basic program needs of the region this year.

"I sure have an awful lot better feeling than I did before the fee increase came along," he added. "It's a big relief for everybody."