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North Dakota hunters, fishers push to increase own license fees

Mark Mazaheri, an avid hunter and fisherman from Fargo, speaks to the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Friday in favor of raising fees on hunting and fishing licenses to support the state's Game and Fish Department.

BISMARCK -- North Dakota outdoorsmen are willing to come to the rescue of the state's Game and Fish Department as its reserve fund is running out.

The department has been deficit spending, or using reserve funds, since 2009 due to an array of issues while flooding and unusual weather decreased wildlife populations and the number of hunting and fishing licenses sold. The department relies on license sales for 56 percent of its revenue.

House Bill 1130 would increase all license fees by 10 percent to 20 percent. It got its first hearing Friday in front of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. With an amendment included to increase fishing and boating registration fees, the increases would generate about $5.85 million over the coming biennium.

Mark Mazaheri, an avid hunter and fisherman from Fargo, said the department needs the additional funding to continue supporting the nationally-recognized Game and Fish staff and outdoor recreation areas.

"I'm coming to you today to say take my money and do something good with it," Mazaheri said. "Just tell me what it's going to cost," he said later.

Rep. Kurt Hofstad, R-Devils Lake, said the fund is at a point where it can no longer be tapped.

The Game and Fish Department will have, on hand, about $23.9 million at the end of the 2011-13 biennium on June 30. Without the increase in fees, the department's fund would be about $15.5 million by June 30, 2015.

Currently, North Dakota law requires the department to keep a $15 million balance in the fund. If it has to dip into the fund, it needs approval from legislators.

"They find themselves in a conundrum unless we increase revenues," Hofstad said.

Game and Fish Director Terry Steinwand said the department does have sufficient reserve funds to carry it through the next biennium. But the department is managing more fishing waters with aquatic nuisance species threats, inflation has caused problems and managing the department's 1 million acres of private access hunting is costly.

The unpredictability of the weather has caused many problems for the department and hunters, he said.

"We can't control the weather," he said. "Good reports, sales go up; bad reports, it really hits pheasant populations hard, and license sales go down."

The bill would raise a resident's small game license fee from $6 to $10, a nonresident's fee from $85 to $94 and a resident's big game license from $20 to $25, among many others.

Rep. Scot Kelsh, D-Fargo, wondered if increasing the fees by only 10 percent or 20 percent is enough, and if increasing them more would allow the department to catch up with inflation rates.

"It's a thin line you have to walk. What will the public stand for?" Steinwand said. "You don't want to overprice the casual hunter or angler who might view this as too much -- it can have an opposite effect."

The 1,300 members of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation met last weekend, according to the federation's registered lobbyist, Michael Donahue, and agreed the fees could be raised more than what is proposed.

Donahue recommended to the committee that they develop a method to allow the department to adjust the fees without the need of the Legislature.

Bill Helphrey spoke on behalf of the North Dakota Bow Hunters Association. He said the deer population has dropped significantly over the past three winters resulting in fewer deer tags, and he wouldn't mind paying more.

"When license numbers goes down, their income goes down," Helphrey said, pointing to Game and Fish employees.

No action was taken by the committee Friday.