Editor’s note: Today’s editorials originally appeared in The Yakima Herald-Republic. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
We have now entered that post-legislative- session phase in which the giddiness of having passed a $52.4 billion biennium budget on time gives way to concern from those programs and agencies mostly left out of state lawmakers’ largesse.
One notable case is the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which came to the Legislature at the start of the session with bucket hat in hand asking for $31 million — a quarter coming from an increase in hunting and fishing license fees and the rest from that presumed bottomless well known as the state general fund.
WDFW was hoping to hook and reel in that big monetary catch to stem a mighty shortfall from a combination of factors, primarily that license sales and general fund taxes had fallen behind the costs and the fact that the agency has yet to recover from some serious recession-related downsizing earlier in the decade.
So, what did the agency end up landing? More like a minnow than a mighty steelhead in the state’s well-stocked revenue stream.
The Legislature, apparently, wanted no part of incurring the wrath of hunters and anglers by raising licensing fees, so there went about a quarter of the WDFW’s budget ask. This, despite the fact that user fees have not risen since 2011 and that department officials requested relatively modest increase linked to “bundling” specific hunting and fishing licenses — a maximum $7 increase for anglers and $15 for hunters.
Absent revenue from the proposed fees, WDFW, which it asked for and was denied in previous budget years, will have to make do with the a one-time
$24 million the lawmakers doled out, significantly less than half what was asked for. It should be noted that a recent state audit showed that WDFW’s spending was in line with that of other state agencies, so there seems little fat to trim.
What, then, will the department do — or not do — with a $7 million budget shortfall?
WDFW officials have yet to decide, but it doesn’t take a Nobel economist to deduce that there will be a cut in services. That potentially means fewer services for outdoors users and for the wildlife that the agency is tasked with nurturing and protecting. Fish hatchery improvements may have to be scrapped, funding for biodiversity conservation and habitat protection pared, and improving access for users curtailed.
And, yes, Nate Pamplin, Fish and Wildlife’s policy director told the Spokane Spokesman-Review, there might be staff layoffs.
Eliminating the agency’s chronic underfunding seemed a bipartisan issue, as both sportsman groups and environmentalists acknowledged the deleterious effects to be had with a continued lack of resources. As Mitch Friedman, head of the nonprofit Conservation Northwest, testified on behalf of the doomed bill in February, “We, the normally fighting cats and dogs of Fish and Wildlife stakeholders, have left our swords at the door and are making peace to work together on this.”
If the hearing had been a movie, the orchestra violins would have swelled at the inspiring words, and lawmakers have seen the light and (at least) moved for a floor vote. Instead, it seems the Legislature had bigger game in mind — namely, orcas. Supporters noted that, while Gov. Jay Inslee and the legislators urgently pushed for nearly
$1 billion for orca recovery, the governor “didn’t say a dang thing about the rest of the animals in the state,” noted David Cloe, past president of the Northwest Wildlife Council.
One problem is that the WDFW’s current funding model seems in need of updating. In Washington state, as with many areas across the nation, fewer people are hunting. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study from 2017 found that just 5 percent of Americans age 16 and older identify as hunters — down from 10 percent in the 1970s. Perhaps that’s due to the increased urbanization of public lands and reduction in bird and other animal species stemming from habitat changes brought on by environmental issues.
Furthermore, since state wildlife departments nationwide get as much as 60 percent of their funding from taxes on purchases of ammunition (bullets, arrows) and fishing gear, the decline in revenue has been sharp. Fish and game officials are heartened that overall outdoors participation is thriving — hiking, bird-watching and nature photography have spiked in recent years — but agencies aren’t collecting any excise tax on all-terrain hiking boots or binoculars.
It’s time for a change in the way fish and wildlife agencies are funded. With other revenue streams drying up, we call for the Legislature to revisit the WDFW’s needs in a supplemental budget next year. The general fund needs to pick up more of Fish and Wildlife’s financial load — if not for the sake of the state’s sportsmen, then for the wellbeing of fish and other wildlife species.