Many anglers and hunters who have shouldered the bulk of the financial load for the Oregon Department of Fish Wildlife say proposed license and tag increases will be the straw that breaks their backs.
Even the department estimates that the incremental license and fee increases in the 2015-17 budget proposal working through the Oregon Legislature would lead to 10,000 dropping out.
"If we lost 10,000 customers, the last thing that we would do is raise our prices," said Brooks Eilertson, of Sherwood, who works at Fisherman's Marine & Outdoor in Portland.
Some said they were already feeling the pinch.
"I cannot afford these fee increases any longer," said Don Voeks, of Gresham, who testified at the Capitol during a hearing on the budget. "My wife has stopped fishing from an annual license and has gone to individual days.
"My son and daughter-in-law are very serious about maybe we won't go fishing from annual licenses anymore. These fees are too much."
Voeks is not a casual angler. He is a member of the Sandy River Chapter of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders and a volunteer angler-education instructor for the department.
Examples of fee hikes
Under the proposal, a resident hunting license that now costs $29.50 would rise to $33.50 in 2016, $34 in 2018 and $34.50 in 2020. A resident fishing license that costs $33 would rise to $38 in 2016, $41 in 2018 and $44 in 2020.
And for saltwater anglers, there would be an add-on "ocean endorsement" required for fishing outside of estuaries, which would cost a fixed $10 annually during the six-year period.
There also would be incremental increases in the costs of hunting tags; one-, two- and three-day fishing and shellfish licenses; and the all-in-one fishing/hunting Sports Paclicense.
And for the first time, a fee would be charged for pioneer licenses. The program now offers free hunting and fishing licenses for 50-year Oregon residents 65 or older.
It might make economic sense because the $6 annual pioneer fee would leverage $20 from federal programs that reimburse states based on fishing and hunting licenses sold. To get the federal money, $6 is the smallest amount the state could charge.
But it has caused ill will among some hunters and anglers who hold the licenses or whose parents and grandparents hunt and fish with them.
To retain anglers and hunters, another proposal is to sell three- and five-year fishing and hunting licenses for the first time. And as an incentive for youth recruitment, the prices of youth licenses and tags, including the juvenile Sports Pac, would be unchanged or decreased in future years.
"We're looking at it six years from now, my husband and I, spending $300 to fish and crab," said Liz Hamilton, the executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, which advocates for industry stakeholders such asmanufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and fishing guides.
Pricing out tourists
Tourist-dependent fishing-charter operators said the proposed bump in fees for nonresidents already were scaring customers away and pricing Oregon out of competition with California and Washington.
"At present, a one-day fishing license is $16.75, and a nonresident shellfish license is $11.50," said Loren Goddard, owner of Dockside Charters in Depoe Bay. "That's scheduled to increase by 2020 to a total of $45, including the endorsement.
"I've already heard a lot of comments from my clients who are from out of state that say that these fee increases will put family recreation out of reach in the state of Oregon."
Chris Olson, who owns Newport Marina Store & Charters, was more blunt.
"In the last week during spring break, we had families from five different bordering states and out to Montana come out and fish through our office," he said. "And your licenses are $150 for a fishing trip for four, five, six hours out there? It's just, I see it as a nail in the coffin for the charter fleet and recreational fishing."
Six years ago, when the department's proposal for the most recent round of license and fee increases went to the Legislature, groups such as the Oregon Hunters Association and the Association of Northwest Steelheaders backed the plan even in the depths of the economic downturn.
Neither supports the current proposal.
During hearings on Senate Bill 247 there was a very real sense of fatigue and frustration, and several commented that the department is mismanaged or tone-deaf to anglers and hunters.
There were comments about imposition of barbless hooks and a recreational closure on the Columbia River from anglers.
Hunters complained about lack of hunting opportunities and animals.
And both complained about lack of management of predators — cougars and now wolves on the hunting side; salmon- and steelhead-killing sea lions, Caspian terns and double-crested cormorants on the fishing side.
"We're just certainly exhausted that the bulk of the burdens of the fish and wildlife management programs are placed squarely on the backs of hunters and fishers," said Bob Rees, the executive director of Northwest Steelheaders. "So the theme is: Stop the bleeding.
"Every six years, we were asked to raise our fee increases to support them just to maintain the status quo. You know status quo is losing anglers, so it's not working. We don't want to see fee increases, especially as significant as the ones we're facing right now, to maintain the status quo."
There are some groups, including the League of Women Voters, WaterWatch and the Oregon Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, that support the increases.
Several of those groups' representatives said that fee increases were necessary and that nobody could say they didn't know they were coming.
"We have supported the fee increase from the outset. We think it's a prudent approach," said Jim Myron, of the Native Fish Society. "ODFW is only doing what they said they were going to do six years ago when they got their last fee increase.
"They said, 'We're going to make this last six years and then we'll be back again.' So they've upheld their end of the bargain, and we feel like we need to uphold ours as well."
How we got here
The proposed fee increases and a separate request for increases in general-fund dollars are designed to maintain current programs and stave off a $32 million shortfall during the 2015-17 biennium.
There are multiple causes for the predicted shortfall. There are increased costs on everything from fish food for the hatcheries to salaries and benefits and increasing payments to the Public Employees Retirement System. There is also the issue of mission creep – biologists and other staff members spending a substantial amount of time for non-fish and wildlife burdens such as preparing reports and analysis for permitting processes for other agencies along with anemic contributions from general fund and Oregon Lottery.
And that's along with long-term declines in angler and hunter numbers.
During the 1970s, one in seven Oregonians, or 340,000, were hunters and one in four, or 560,000, went fishing, according to figures cited in a secretary of state's audit. As of 2010, those figures were one in 17, or 240,000, for hunters and one in eight, or 490,000, for anglers.
A hunting license cost $7 in 1976, compared with $29.50 in 2013. A fishing license cost $9 in 1976, compared with $33.
There were 5,000 hunting licenses and 130,000 fishing licenses sold to nonresidents in 1976. In 2013, it was 15,000 hunting licenses and 120,000 fishing licenses.
So the trajectory is unsustainable, with rising outflow mostly on the backs of diminished numbers of what are known as consumptive users, hunters and anglers. And the bleeding already has begun.
Fish and Wildlife is in the process of cutting about 50 positions. — about one in 20 at headquarters and one in 50 in the field. The department also has reorganized the state into just two regions and is implementing efficiencies such as consolidating functions with other agencies.
The 'what if' question
The department has outlined a grim strategy for dealing with the worst-case scenario if fee increases are not approved, a $9.15 million loss just in the 2015-17 budget.
The plan calls for a loss of 42 positions – seven at Salem headquarters and 35 in the field – along with the elimination of the Bandon and Alsea River fish hatcheries, the Oregon Hatchery Research Center, the North Santiam River summer steelhead program at Leaburg Hatchery on the McKenzie River, 13 field positions in the Wildlife Division, and money to pay for five Fish and Wildlife Division troopers with the Oregon State Police.
It also would eliminate $400,000 that the department budgeted to pay for the purchase of rainbow trout from private hatcheries that raise the fish for the statewide stocking program.
That's on top of the current cuts to positions.
"We know where we spend license dollars. We spend license dollars in fish hatcheries, district field offices and on state police enforcement," said Curt Melcher, the department director. "So insofar as we know where we spend the big bulk of our license dollars, we know that any shortfall in that revenue, either because license sales fall off or we don't have a fee increase, will impact those programs.
"We know one thing: We're going to balance our budget. We have to."
hemiller@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6725 or follow on Twitter @henrymillersj and facebook.com/hmillersj