ODFW’s 2021-2023 Biennium Budget

The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife is currently working on their budget for the 2021-2023 biennium and taking public comment until May 1.  You can learn more here.  ODFW is the only state agency that solicits direct public feedback on their budget.  In the past they have done this through their External Budget Advisory Committee (I am a member) as well as at town hall meetings throughout the state.  Given the current pandemic, they are soliciting feedback electronically.  There’s lot of information on their website, below are my observations and comments from the perspective of an angler in Central Oregon.  I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the materials and submit your own comments.

I have been an EBAC member for multiple budget cycles and attended town hall meetings in Bend before that.  The primary theme in all these meetings has been the same: a lack of adequate funding to meet ODFW’s goals due to declining hunting and fishing license sales even while the population of Oregon continues to increase.  For example, fishing license sales have declined -10.9% in terms of volume and gone down -0.4% in terms of revenue in 2019 vs. 2015-2018.  Hunting license sales and revenues have declined even more.

“Oregon, like many states, has seen a decline in hunting and fishing participation since the record highs of decades ago. These declines are reflective of societal changes such as changing demographics, urbanization, an aging population, and a gradual dissociation from nature. There are also declines due to personal barriers such as work obligations, family obligations, loss of interest, personal health, and access to hunting and fishing opportunities.”

In order to make up for budget shortfalls, ODFW has increased license fees in the past.  Their top priority this year is to not request further increases, even while their expenses continue to grow.  For example, “Personal Services” make up 60% of ODFW’s expenditures and is growing at 8% a year.

They propose to maintain current recreational fees but increase commercial fees, extend the Columbia River Basin Endorsement beyond the January 2022 sunset, and tap into $4M of their reserve funds.  This will leave them with only 2-2.5 months of operating cash at the end of 2023.  There is also mention of charging for “premium” fishing opportunities but no discussion of what that means.  Access to otherwise closed areas?  An increased limit?  Early opening on some rivers?  I have no idea.

I have mixed feelings about keeping fees flat.  Dipping into reserves when it is not a true emergency may be dangerous, and COVID-19 just may create that real budget emergency.  Also, while I understand that licenses are not cheap, they are still not that expensive in relation to all the other costs of fishing and fishing travel.  More importantly, ODFW’s own economists have determined that there is little or no price elasticity for license sales.  In other words, keeping prices flat or lowering them will not increase sales volumes enough to make up the difference in lost revenue.

“Although the expense related to participating in hunting and fishing is identified as an impediment, the cost of licensing is not a primary reason for not hunting or fishing.”

The real issue is that a declining percentage of Oregonian’s have interest in hunting and fishing for a wide variety of reasons.  Fortunately, ODFW is attempting to increase participation in hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing, along with increasing the diversity of participants.  They are also proposing that the agency be reorganized into three divisions: fish, wildlife, and a new habitat division.

This seems like an excellent idea to me.  As they state, one way to increase participation is to increase opportunity.  Improved habitat is central to this effort.  It will also help to engage the majority of Oregonians who want to view wildlife but have no interest in fishing or hunting.  ODFW states that Habitat Division protection and restoration policies would incorporate their under-development climate change policy which clearly makes sense.

The big hole in this plan is lack of funding.  The Habitat Division is contingent on additional funding from the legislature via a Policy Option Package.  Without understanding all the details, on the surface the Habitat Division seems important enough to me to warrant increasing fees to pay for it.  After all, without habitat, we have nothing.