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Wildlife managers worry over funding

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Randy Prachar knows what it's like to pinch pennies, but the longtime wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says things now are reaching a breaking point.

Prachar oversees two of the largest wildlife management areas in Minnesota -- 75,000-acre Roseau River Wildlife Management Area and 55,000-acre Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area. That's a lot of ground to cover, but Prachar has managed the workload by splitting his time between the two northwest Minnesota WMAs and relying on assistant managers at each site to help carry the daily routines.

Last month, though, Prachar's assistant at Roseau River transferred to a DNR wildlife office in northeast Minnesota. That leaves the WMA without a full-time manager onsite.

For now, at least, hiring a replacement isn't an option because the DNR's Game and Fish Fund - which pays for fisheries, wildlife, enforcement and similar programs - is running out of money. Funded mainly by hunting and fishing license dollars, the Game and Fish Fund is projected to go into the red by June 2013 without an influx of new money.

As the well runs dry, Prachar and other DNR fisheries, enforcement and wildlife managers have to balance tenuous workloads with tight budgets.

Something has to give.

"This has become, I don't want to say impossible, but I have to tell people, 'OK, I've got your request, you're going to have to just get in line and when I get to it, I get to it,'" Prachar said. "We try to keep our priorities straight, and with the limited budgets, it gets to be (challenging) choosing what to do.

"We're feeling the brunt of it now."

There's hope on the horizon, though, in the form of a proposed increase in hunting and fishing license fees, which haven't risen since 2001. The DNR and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton pitched the fee hike last year, as well, but the measure didn't go anywhere in the Legislature because state lawmakers were grappling with a budget deficit.

This year, though, the fee increase appears to have more traction. The measure has broad support among sportsmen and conservation groups, and separate bills in the House and Senate each include fee hikes of varying amounts.

Resident fishing licenses, for example, would increase from $17 to either $22 or $24, depending on the proposal, while resident small game licenses would increase from $19 to $22, and deer licenses would increase to $30 from the present cost of $26.

The increases would boost annual funding to the Game and Fish Fund anywhere from $11 million to $14 million.

"It's definitely needed," said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resource Committee. "We should not let the 'fee vs. taxes' rhetoric get in the way of a real need, and I think there's a real need here."

Among DNR managers, Prachar probably knows that as well as anyone. Last fall, he said, dry conditions allowed DNR staff to work up and prepare food plot sites for seeding after several wet years.

Now, he said, there might not be enough money to plant the sites this spring.

"Are we actually going to be able to afford to run the tractors to seed them?" Prachar said. "We've set the table for having a good year of getting some food plots in, but I don't know that we're going to be able to carry through.

"Running the tractors, every time we turn the wheel it costs us. That's not different from anybody else out there; I just wonder how many of them have had a flat income for 12 years."

John Williams, assistant regional wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, said a glance at eight area wildlife offices from Bemidji to Crookston and north to the Canadian border shows vacancies in every office.

It's barely enough to keep the phones answered, he said, "and that's just in wildlife."

Henry Drewes, regional fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, said he's down eight permanent staff in the region and "essentially all" of the seasonal personnel he used to hire. That means creel surveys on midsize lakes such as Bemidji, Big Detroit and Otter Tail have been eliminated, and crews aren't doing fish population assessments as frequently.

"If we don't have that information, we're less likely to make the best management decisions," Drewes said. "We just don't have the boots on the ground."

Boots on the ground also are required for implementing projects through the state's Legacy Amendment, which voters approved in 2008. Funded by a small sales tax increase, the amendment generates some $400 million annually for fish and wildlife habitat, clean water, parks and the arts.

The fund doesn't cover staff or equipment, though, and without money to pay for personnel, projects don't get done.

That's happening already, the DNR's Williams said.

"I can tell you right now we didn't get as many projects done as we could have if we would have had all our staff filled," he said.

DNR managers say the crisis facing the Game and Fish Fund is worse than last year, when the agency and the governor first proposed the license fee increase. At that time, the Game and Fish Fund was projected to stay in the black until 2014. Then, a month-long government shutdown last July resulted in a $2 million hit to the Game and Fish Fund because fishing licenses couldn't be sold.

Also, federal reimbursements on taxes from sales of hunting and fishing equipment are down the past couple of years because of the economic downturn.

"We are now 15½ months from going into the red," Drewes said. "We cannot let that happen by law, so if we do not get a license revenue increase, then we're going to need to be implementing some strategies to make sure we don't go into the red."

That could mean layoffs, consolidating field stations and other program reductions.

"For me as a fish manager, asking for money is not what we really want to be doing," Drewes said. "We don't like having to be making the case for increasing revenues. We would rather just be doing the fish work or the wildlife work. We need to shore up the base and get back to business, so I'm not working on cost reduction scenarios and layoff scenarios."

Williams, the regional wildlife assistant manager, said he's trying to stay upbeat.

"We can't imagine this not going through," he said. "I don't know where we'd start if this wouldn't happen.

"I've not heard any of our client groups indicate opposition to this," Williams said. "But it won't happen unless people who are affected by this are making contacts with legislators."

Meantime, managers like Prachar are doing the best they can with the resources they have.

"I think we've squeezed and pinched pennies here and there enough, and now it is really serious," Prachar said. "We just can't do the priority stuff if this keeps on."