TWRA responds to local sportsman’s questions
Published 10:37 am Thursday, January 28, 2016
In Sunday’s edition of the Elizabethton Star, local sportsman J.C. Miller questioned the need for Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency’s July 2015 increase in license fees, how those fees are utilized and asked what results citizens can expect to see.
TWRA representatives offered answers to these questions and more.
The most recent license fee increase of about 19 percent was the second of only two increases in the last 25 years, said Region IV Information and Education Coordinator Matthew Cameron. In addition, it was the smallest increase in the agency’s 67-year history.
“Our funding as an agency comes almost exclusively from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and matching funds from federal excise taxes on related equipment,” said Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Harold Cannon, who chairs the commission’s budget and finance committee. “The license fee package passed in 2004 was designed to cover the revenue shortfall for a period of six-to-eight years, and we made it work for more than a decade. In 2013, we started working closely with the agency to identify budget savings, but the reality is everything is more expensive than it was 10 years ago. Changes to the federal matching funds, capital expenditures and the general cost to state government — on top of the 22 percent cost of living increase — made it necessary to introduce this new fee structure.”
The recent increase was best described as a cost of living increase as it corresponds to a 22 percent increase in prices in the Consumer Price Index, Cameron said, citing increases in expenses for the agency.
“The cost of a fully-rigged patrol boat in 2004 was $35,000, whereas in 2014 it was $68,000 (94 percent increase). A fully-rigged patrol vehicle was about $25,750 in 2004 and increased to $39,200 in 2014. The cost of fish food increased around 80 percent. Gain sorghum seed increased 150 percent. Corn seed increased 121 percent while the cost for fertilizer increased 76 percent,” Cameron said.
He noted that while prices have increased dramatically in the last decade, the price charged to sportsmen remained unchanged until 2015.
Additionally, he noted major capital expenditures in recent years including $7 million on a critical upgrade for inter-agency law enforcement communication, $3.5 million for HVAC and electrical system repairs at the Nashville Headquarters and $1 million annually for annual compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Miller asked if sportsmen would see new programs, classes or new habitat management projects develop as a result of the increase.
“The long and short of it is no,” responded Cameron. “The license increase was necessary to maintain our current level of wildlife and fisheries management and law enforcement programs.
“Inflation and other cost increases ultimately create a scenario where the revenues don’t cover the expenses, and either fees have to be increased or programs have to be cut,” Cameron said. “The license increase was designed to generate additional revenues to continue funding agency programs at current levels, and to ensure that the nationally recognized work of our state’s wildlife agency can continue without any negative impact on the public or its resources.”
The efforts of TWRA have multiplied state wildlife and fish populations, thereby increasing hunting and fishing opportunities for sportsmen.
Cameron provided some history of wildlife populations beginning in 1949, when the Tennessee Game and Fish Commission was established. There were less than 2,000 deer in the state then, but today, that population is estimated at over 750,000. Tennessee deer hunters harvest over 167,000 per year, he said. Wild turkey numbers were below 1,000, while today they are more than 300,000, and hunters kill over 30,000 annually. There were no known bald eagle nests at the time, but today there are about 175 nesting pairs.
“One of the most astonishing wildlife restoration stories may be the success of the black bear population that was once estimated at only a few individuals in the mid 1900s,” said Cameron. “Today we have a population between 4,500 and 6,000, and hunters harvested 550 black bears this hunting season. We have also reintroduced elk into the state whose numbers are around 400.”
In the last two decades, TWRA has stocked 100 million fish into Tennessee waters, and the state has produced eight world record fish. TWRA also manages 1.5 million acres of publicly accessible land, which is three times the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In response to Miller asking how revenue generated from fines and tickets is used, Cameron said that in 2014, wildlife and fish fines generated $26,755, and boating fines brought in $143,563.
“While we don’t charge specific fees for boat ramp usage, the revenue from citations and fines is utilized by our Law Enforcement Division to enforce state and federal wildlife, fish and boating laws,” explained Cameron, adding it is a very small percent of their operating budget.