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Time to Cut Bait at the Game and Fish Department

 ~~ By Maureen Bader, Wyoming Liberty Group~~

Mission creep: the gradual process by which a campaign or mission’s objectives change over time, esp. with undesirable consequences.

When the Game and Fish Commission was created by legislation passed in 1921, the role of the Game and Fish department was to protect, propagate, preserve and distribute “Game animals, birds and fish of this State.” Now, the department’s mission has morphed to “conserving wildlife – serving people.” This loose definition helps to explain the expansion of the Game and Fish department’s activities to pretty much anything that could possibly have anything to do with any animal or person in the state.

If only Bambi’s mother were this bullet proof.

Lately, this mission creep has helped the Game and Fish budget explode. In 2004, Game and Fish had a budget of $43.6 million. By 2012, that budget ballooned to $77.6 million, a 64 percent increase. Since then, the department trimmed its budget to $76.3 million in 2013 and says it will cut it to $71.5 in 2014.

Not bad, but the proposed 2014 budget is still 53 percent higher than in 2004.

Restraint has been forced upon the department because of the reduction in its main source of revenue – hunting and fishing license fee sales. In 2007, the year before the last license fee hike, Game and Fish earned approximately $35 million from license sales. The following year, license revenue rose to $39.6 million.

However, by 2011, the last year for which data is available, revenues had fallen to $37.6 million.

When the price of something goes up, less tends to be sold. The slow slide downward lin license sales would seem to indicate that it is time to reel in department mission creep.

Instead, the department tried, four times during the 2013 legislative session, to raise hunting and fishing license fees. Legislators, wisely, rebuffed this effort.

This summer, Game and Fish is presenting its case for additional funds to the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources committee (TRW). Its apparent strategy is to suggest cuts to a number of popular programs. Such cuts seem designed to generate the loudest response from vested interests, including decreasing the publication of the popular Wyoming Wildlife Magazine from 12 issues a year to six, a savings of $240,000; cuts to public-school archery and fishing programs, and the elimination of the Wild Times publication for school children for an additional savings of $45,000.

Indicative of the short-term nature of its planned cuts, the department proposes to postpone fish hatchery maintenance (saving $463,000) and leave 12 positions vacant for a savings of $900,000. Its clarion call is that if it doesn’t get more money, it will have to do more than just trim around the edges. It will have to – gasp! – “cut programs.”

Let’s face it. It is about time the department reeled itself in.

During the TRW committee in May this year, legislators brought up a number of examples of questionable spending programs. For one, it seems that back in the 2004-05 biennium, the federal government said the state had to create a conservation plan or else it would lose between $550,000 and $750,000 in federal funds annually. One result of this federal mandate was the state’s Bat Conservation plan, which called for bat-house construction.

Representative Gary Piiparinen (R-Uinta) asked how many bat houses the department had built and how many bats lived in them. Brian Nesvik, the Wildlife Division chief, didn’t know. However, Game and Fish has posted a job on its website for a Nongame Bat Crew Leader, whatever that means.

Another program ripe for the plucking is the bird farm program, which costs the department roughly twice as much to raise a pheasant than an equivalent farm in the private sector. Responding to Representative Allen Jaggi’s (R-Uinta) program-privatization suggestion, Chief Nesvik said stringent disease and licensing requirements prevented Game and Fish from using private-farm birds. However, in 2011, because of – wait for it – disease at a government bird farm, Game and Fish bought 10,000 pheasants from McFarlane’s Pheasant, Inc., a private bird farm in Wisconsin.

During this same committee meeting, Game and Fish officials provided the operating budget for each of its divisions. Left almost entirely left out the discussion, however, was spiraling personnel costs, which represent 62 percent of the department’s costs. Not only that personnel costs have increased by 62 percent over the past 10 years.

This department has reached its bag limit. Legislators must rein in its activities by clearly limiting its activities to hunters’ and anglers’ ability to pay for Game and Fish programs and personnel.

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