Wisconsin wildlife officials warn of $16M shortfall as fewer people get hunting licenses

Fall Gun Deer Hunt
Posted at 11:15 AM, Jan 25, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-25 12:15:27-05

MADISON (AP) — Wisconsin's wildlife management account will start the next two-year budget period nearly $16 million in the red thanks largely to dwindling hunting license sales, putting projects from fish stocking to habitat restoration in doubt, state Department of Natural Resources officials warned Wednesday.

The department places money from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses along with revenue from timber sales and tribal gaming payments into what's known as the fish and wildlife account. The department uses the money for a host of fish and wildlife management programs, including stocking game fish, restoring habitats, wardens, monitoring chronic wasting disease and paying farmers' wolf depredation claims.

But a combination of fewer licenses sold at relatively low prices and rising inflation has hurt the account, department budget analysts told the agency's board.

"The long-term trend is fewer licenses, fewer hunters and less revenue coming in and it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better," the board's chairman, Bill Smith, said. "You really question how we're going to operate in the future without significant changes in our funding strategies."

License sales have dwindled for years as hunters age out of the sport and fewer young people develop an interest in hunting. Sales of gun deer licenses have dropped 4% since 2018, from 577,576 licenses to 553,479 licenses this year.

Licenses are relatively cheap for state residents. A gun deer license has cost $24 and a fishing license has cost $20 for the last 18 years. What's more, legislators have granted certain user groups such as veterans, senior citizens and first-time buyers steep discounts. A senior citizen fishing license, for example, costs just $7.

The Legislature staved off a deficit in the account in the 2023-25 state budget partly by raising the price of nonresident hunting and fishing licenses, generating nearly $5 million in additional revenue over the two-year-period. Lawmakers also shifted $25 million from the DNR's forestry account to the fish and wildlife account.

The fix was temporary. The department expects to generate about $62.3 million for the account in fiscal year 2026 with spending obligations totaling $78.2 million. That translates to a $15.9 million deficit heading into the next state budget, department Budget and Policy Supervisor Paul Neumann told the board.

Neumann noted that Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill that would raise the cost of a nonresident bow and crossbow deer hunting license by an additional $35 to $200. The department has estimated the change would generate an additional $543,200 annually. The Senate's sporting heritage committee approved the proposal on a unanimous vote earlier this month, but it's unclear if the bill will get a floor vote before the two-year legislative session ends in February.

Smith, the board's chairman, said license fee increases alone won't fill the shortfall. He said board members should work to educate lawmakers and the public on the situation but think about long-term solutions.

Board member Douglas Cox lamented that the shortfall will mean wildlife and fishery programs will suffer "across the board." Board member Todd Ambs said it's time to talk to lawmakers about raising fishing license fees for state residents. Only the Legislature can set license fees.

"It's great to fish in Wisconsin," Ambs said.

"You're getting a great value for your money and I can't think of another thing that hasn't gone up in 20 years," he added.