Seekins: Proposal would double fees, tie license funds to game opportunities
Joel Gay / Anchorage Daily News / June 1, 2005
A bill that would double hunting license fees to raise more money for wildlife management, along with a host of other controversial provisions, has been shelved for the summer by sponsor Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks.
The 27-page measure is loaded with regulation changes that would reshape game management in Alaska. Seekins said he hopes to solicit public opinion in coming months and bring the bill back next session.
But in its brief life this year, SB 170 prompted cheers from sportsmen who say the proposed changes are overdue but raised concern among others and from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
As written, the bill would:
* Require state biologists to focus their efforts almost exclusively on animals that are hunted, fished or trapped.
* Demand more financial accountability from Fish and Game.
* Allow animal protection groups to purchase the hunting rights on high-profile wolves and brown bears.
* Make it easier to establish predator control and broaden rules for killing grizzly bears in those areas.
Seekins said the bill's main aim is to make Fish and Game more accountable. "We're not asking for anything drastic," he said. "The bill was created to stimulate discussion."
That it has.
Wildlife protection advocates support the fee increase but oppose the predator control elements. The Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory Committee dislikes the fee structure and sees the bill as legislative meddling. Fish and Game officials found several elements of SB 170 troubling.
"It (makes) some fundamental changes in the authority of the Board of Game and the department that we weren't comfortable with," said deputy commissioner Wayne Regelin. But with the bill set aside until next session, he added, "I feel pretty confident we'll be able to work through those."
Seekins said the bill addresses a rift that has grown between hunters and the department that manages state wildlife. It comes down to accountability, he said.
"There's an element of trust that when (hunters) plunk their money down for a license, that it's used for their direct benefit -- to harvest something," Seekins said. The state constitution says wildlife and other natural resources should be managed "for the maximum benefit of its people." Fish and Game hasn't done that, he said.
The prime example is predator control, Seekins said. Many hunters say the state should engage in "active management" -- shorthand for killing predatory wolves and bears -- to leave more moose and caribou for humans.
His bill redirects state efforts to make active management its top priority. It specifies that hunting and fishing license fees be used to maximize hunting and trapping opportunities and to increase the amount of game available for human consumption.
Further, it says license and tag fees may not be spent on critters that humans don't consume. If Fish and Game wants to research songbirds, set up wildlife viewing programs or do environmental studies for a new mine, Seekins said it should find alternate funding.
Fish and Game originally proposed the fee increase because state general funds for game management have been eliminated over time.
"I think they probably do need some more money," Seekins said. But some past expenditures have been inappropriate, he said, and the agency hasn't given him a satisfactory accounting.
Many hunters point to a new, 600-page staff report on non-game species as an example of funding they don't support. The "Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy" does nothing to boost game numbers, they say, yet was partly funded by hunters' fees.
Regelin said the report was required, in order to get more than $3 million a year in federal grants to monitor non-game species.
"That doesn't mean we're moving to manage those species and ignoring the others," such as moose and mountain goats, he said. Alaska has and will continue to focus most on animals that are hunted, fished or trapped, Regelin said.
"But when you look at the bigger picture, we have responsibility for all 480 species of wildlife in the state," of which about 50 are hunted or trapped, he said. The state needs basic information on the other species "so they don't become endangered. The best thing you can do to prevent a species from becoming endangered is to know more about it."
Seekins' bill requires regular reports on how Fish and Game spends money and prohibits transferring more than $10,000 from one project to another without legislative approval. Accountability is already required but not provided, Seekins said.
Fish and Game officials are skeptical. "We don't have any problem with accountability," said Matt Robus, director of the wildlife conservation division. "We believe we're spending the money we have properly. But we do have some real questions about whether it's possible and efficient" to keep such close track of finances and to need legislative approval for individual projects.
If a moose survey is canceled because of unforeseen snow conditions, Robus said, biologists currently can use the money on another project they deem necessary. Getting legislative approval "could really gum up the works," he said. "Accountability yes, but in a way that doesn't hamstring our operations."
SB 170 also would relax the legal requirements to establish predator-control programs targeting wolves and brown bears. It would allow pilots in state-approved predator-control programs to spot grizzlies from the air, then land and shoot them, and to guide hunters on the ground to bears seen from above.
It would create a new "permit deferral" program where wildlife viewing conflicts with hunting or trapping, such as near McNeil State Game Sanctuary or Denali National Park. If a McNeil-area bear hunt typically cost $15,000, then friends of the bears could save one of the animals by giving the state $15,000.
Defenders of Wildlife spokeswoman Karen Deatherage called the entire bill "ridiculous," and the permit deferral idea flawed. "If that's the game he wants to play" at McNeil, famous for its bear-viewing opportunities, she said, "hunters would need to pay $300,000 to $500,000 each year for what those animals bring in tourism."
At McNeil, bear viewers already pay fees to cover the management cost, she noted.
Her group is particularly concerned that Seekins' bill transfers authority from department biologists to the Game Board and Legislature. "I think he's engaged in a battle over policy and trying to completely take over the power of biologists to make fish and game decisions in this state," she said.
The bill would raise an estimated $3.5 million a year, Seekins said. Residents would pay $50 for a hunting license and $30 to trap, twice what they pay now. Nonresidents would bear most of the burden through higher license and big game tag fees.
Members of the Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory Committee favor a different approach, said chairman Steve Flory Sr. They would phase in the increases over four years but saddle nonresidents with bigger increases than Seekins proposes.
"We wanted to give Fish and Game enough money to do more than the minimum," he said, adding that the current minimal budget is at least partly responsible for the state's dwindling stocks of big game.
Many other hunters support the bill, said Wayne Heimer, a retired Fish and Game biologist and sportsman in Fairbanks.
"The folks that just want a caribou to eat or for moose to survive better are really disappointed in how the department's priorities have shaken out in the last decade," he said. On issues such as predator control and department spending, "the dissatisfaction is palpable," Heimer said. SB 170 resolves many of those concerns, he added.
Seekins hopes to hold hearings this summer to gauge support for raising hunting fees, along with the other measures in his bill.
"If we're going to ask people to pony more money up, they need to see what it's gone for in the past, and to know what it's going for in the future," he said.
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at email@example.com or at 257-4310.
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