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NORTH DAKOTA OUTDOORS: Game and Fish Department funded from various sources

A standard instructional segment of North Dakota's hunter education course is an explanation of hunting and fishing license fees and excise taxes and how hunting and fishing have a strong history and tradition of financial self support. In fact, we often point out that the North Dakota Game and Fish Department receives no state general fund allocation.

In class and in general conversation, that actually surprises a lot of people. It also is surprising to some that the Game and Fish Department has not asked the Legislature for any resident license fee increases since 1995, when an individual fishing license went from $9 to $10, and a husband-wife fishing license went from $13 to $14.

Certainly, a few resident license fees have increased slightly since then, but these were initiated by legislators and not specifically sought by Game and Fish. In addition, nonresident license fees also have held the line since 2003, when the Legislature -- also independent of any requests from Game and Fish -- adjusted nonresident small game, waterfowl, big game and fishing licenses from levels established in 1993.

The Game and Fish Department's annual income consists of about 45 percent state hunting, fishing, trapping and other license dollars; 50 percent federal aid from manufacturers' excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, and 5 percent from other sources such as wildlife management area agricultural land rental, federal funding for species of concern research, and state motorboat fuel tax.

Federal aid funds typically are received as reimbursement for 75 percent of the cost for fish and wildlife-related projects like improving boat landings and ramps and conducting wildlife and fisheries surveys.

To remain eligible for federal aid, state wildlife agencies may not divert license or federal aid funds to purposes other than those related to fish and wildlife. For instance, the state could not take money from the Game and Fish fund to cover a shortfall in another agency without jeopardizing millions of dollars of federal aid.

Across the country, many state conservation agencies are having financial difficulties.

North Dakota's Game and Fish Department heads into the upcoming legislative session with a positive fund balance and again no request for license fee adjustments.

Much of the good fortune in the Game and Fish financial picture is either directly or indirectly related to the advent of the federal Conservation Reserve Program, the random appearance of an unprecedented wet cycle that started in 1993 and still is providing benefits today, and a series of mild winters through the mid-2000s.

The CRP first created habitat for pheasants and deer, and when water refilled prairie wetlands, it also served as duck nesting territory. While difficult winters and resulting snowmelt into wetlands help waterfowl, and mild winters without much snow help pheasants and deer over time an adequate habitat base will help all those species prosper.

Think in terms of the line from the movie "Field of Dreams" in which Kevin Costner built a baseball park from an Iowa cornfield: "If you build it, they will come."

North Dakota developed higher pheasant, waterfowl, deer and fish numbers, and those higher populations drew more people, both resident and nonresident, to participate and buy licenses and equipment which generated additional funding.

It's fair to wonder how long this good fortune will last. Will North Dakota's Game and Fish Department have to deal with future budget shortfalls, though they may be years down the road?

On the other hand, perhaps climatic conditions and habitat set-aside programs will remain stable, and the state will maintain hunting and fishing participation at levels high enough to support wildlife and fisheries management and conservation in North Dakota without adjusting license fees.

Fortunately, we have time to prepare in case the worst should happen.Leier is a biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.