Monday, January 18, 2010 7:06 pm
The agencies that manage Pennsylvania's wildlife resources are struggling to maintain services even as their responsibilities expand, and one of them is considering raising fees.
Officials at the Pennsylvania Game Commission and at the commonwealth's Fish and Boat Commission say they have been struggling to find alternative funding needed to maintain services. And Fish and Boat commissioners, expecting a deficit next year, are considering raising fees for fishing licenses.
The wildlife commissions, unlike other state agencies, receive no money from the general fund, having relied since their founding a century ago on revenue raised from hunters and anglers. But officials say plans to expand management of nongame species, including goals in the Game Commission's new five-year plan, are not financially sustainable.
And while a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey in 2006 found a decline in participation in traditional hunting and fishing, wildlife watching had become the fastest growing outdoors pastime, both nationally and in Pennsylvania.
"Wildlife watchers are not funding what they're doing directly," said Jim Bonner, executive director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. "And some of them don't even know it."
"Eight percent of the population is paying for wildlife that is enjoyed by 100 percent of the population," Game Commission executive director Carl Roe said.
Rick Garstka, president of the Pennsylvania Cross Country Skier's Association, said he had no idea that members of his group and other outdoor enthusiasts weren't helping to pay the cost of managing wildlife.
"I've always assumed it was coming out of our taxes somehow," he said.
The Game Commission's budget for 2009-10 is about $80.5 million, and in the 2008-09 fiscal year, about 51 percent of its revenue came from license sales. A federal excise tax on hunting equipment and ammunition brought in $10.5 million, and about 7.5 percent in 2008-09 came from gas and oil leases on 305 state game lands.
"In our Diversity Section, biologists deal with 465 species including bats, songbirds and flying squirrels," Roe said. "We hunt 40 species."
About 67 percent of the Fish and Boat Commission's $61 million 2009-10 operating budget comes from license fees, while about 15 percent comes from a federal sales tax on fishing equipment. Each agency received about $1.2 million annually in federal wildlife grants, with other grants are linked to specific projects.
Fish and Boat Commissioner Leonard Lichvar said members are talking about seeking legislative approval to raise license fees.
"By 2011, Fish and Boat will run a deficit _ we'll red line," he said.
State Rep. David Levdansky, D-Allegheny, chairman of the House Finance Committee, last year tried unsuccessfully to have some state sales tax revenue transferred to the commissions. This year, he said he is focusing on trying to persuade lawmakers to impose a severance tax for the removal of natural gas from the Marcellus shale formation, which some geologists expect to become the nation's most prolific gas field.
"Pennsylvania is the only state that produces Marcellus shale that doesn't charge a severance tax," said Mr. Levdansky. Some revenue would be directed to the wildlife commissions and to a fund to clean up waterways impacted by the release of dissolved solids in water used in drilling, he said.