A modest proposal to get more hunters and anglers afield (and improve DFW revenue)

By JIM MATTHEWS www.OutdoorNewsService.com

One of the biggest problems facing the Department of Fish and Wildlife and protection of state’s wildlife resources is a diminishing number of hunters and anglers. Those two groups, through their license and tag fees and federal excise taxes, are still the largest single component of the state DFW’s $400 million annual budget, providing about half of the agency’s income. Nearly every year since the agency hit its peak hunting and fishing license sales over three decades ago, those numbers of has been declining. Today, there are less than half the number of anglers and less than a third the number of hunters in this state as there was at peak sales. The DFW’s revenue from those remaining has been about the same or increasing slightly as license and tag fees climb and additional costs are added. As an organization, there is a lot of talk within the DFW about how to stem the decline of hunters and anglers, especially as the state’s population skyrockets. The DFW budget should be growing from new license fees as the population grows, but it is not. Yet, with additional responsibilities and increased costs, keeping the DFW budget the same is a recipe for long-term failure. We are decades into that failing system, and the DFW no longer performs some of the basic science it did routinely in the past. Hunters and anglers can tell you the impact this budget crisis has had on the state’s management, protection, and enhancement of our wildlife. It has never been worse, especially for game and fish species, and recreational programs. Since I write about those failures all the time, I’d like to offer a modest proposal to help solve this problem. This is a simple two-part proposal that might take legislation to accomplish, but it should have massive bi-partisan support: First, offer a reduced-price annual fishing and hunting licenses for first-time California sportsmen. With the DFW’s new automated license system, it will be easy to make sure existing annual license holders aren’t trying to get the cheap deal. We offer reduced prices for juniors and seniors, why not first timers to try to encourage them try to the outdoor sports and get them hooked so the next year, they continue to hunt and fish and join the ranks of regular license buyers. And make the fee low enough so people will buy them. The existing annual basic fishing license is nearly $50 – heck, the one-day license is $15 and a two-day license is just over $23 and we sell 550,000 and 103,000 of those respectively. Where we once sold 2.2 million annual licenses, we only sell just over 1 million now. According to the DFW, of 650,000 anglers who buy one- or two-day licenses about 565,000 are residents. Cost is obviously a factor for casual fishermen. Let’s make the first-time fisherman license the same cost as the one-day license -- or less. And if one- or two-day licenses are all the angler has ever purchased in the past, we give them a one-time opportunity to buy the first-time angler license. We don’t want them to go fishing just one time. We want them to go repeatedly and become hooked annual license buyers. While I might gripe about the cost of my annual hunting and fishing licenses (just because I’m a cheapskate), I tell people they are a bargain at twice the price -- even at today’s inflated prices. On the hunting license side, we already have a discounted license fee for junior hunters. Why not extend that fee to first-time hunters in California, regardless of their age. The only thing this will possibly do is get more people into the field and buying licenses each year. And all those increases are revenue-positive for the DFW and the state’s fisheries. OK, that is part one. Second, we simply need to do away with non-resident licenses and those exorbitant fees we charge residents of other states. Why should a guy who lives in Reno or Las Vegas have to pay $125 for an annual non-resident fishing license? Sure, he can buy a one- or two-day license for his visits and save money (they pay the same as residents for those). But why not encourage all the snowbirds who come here to get fishing licenses? Why not get the residents of nearby states to also buy our license. Why don’t we promote our unbelievable fishing outside of California? It would even make more sense for hunting. I personally have at least one friend from Arizona would buy an annual hunting license to come here and hunt dove, chukar and quail, deer, and wild hogs each year if he didn’t have to pay $160-plus license, the $270-plus deer tag, and $75 wild hog tag fees. That’s a $500 bill. As a resident, I pay about $100 for the same three things. A non-resident annual fishing license is $125, while the non-resident 10-day license is the same cost as a resident’s annual license. This proposal would streamline things for the DFW because it would also do away with all non-resident licenses and tags. Yes, that would increase the number of hunters applying for our special hunts, but you know what, that’s OK. Most of these hunts take place on federal lands and why should California residents get special privileges? As a guy who hates to pay the steep fees in other states, I think this is a great idea. Do you realize it costs over $600 for an elk tag in Wyoming for a non-resident, and if you want to have any hope of getting a tag you will pay over $1,000 for the “special” tag? That is criminal, especially when you consider a resident pays $52! I can’t afford to even apply for an elk any longer because you have to apply with the whole fee. We only sell 27,000 non-resident fishing licenses a year (the majority are 10-day license which currently costs the same as an annual resident license), and only 3,700 non-resident hunting licenses. If it were known that California licenses were the same price for non-residents as residents, we’d double revenue with increased sales numbers just from Reno and Las Vegas. The DFW is fond of pointing out that with every license or tag fee increase, a percent of hunters and fishermen drop out of the sport, creating a funding death spiral we’ve been watching happen for 40 years. Maybe this proposal would reverse that revenue spiral, get more people fishing and hunting in this state, and increase the support for the agency. Maybe it would even allow the DFW to reduce the cost of general hunting and fishing licenses -- for the first time ever -- and bring even more people back to these great activities. Maybe…. Upland bird opener dismal most places in entire region The quail and chukar hunting has been almost universally poor throughout the southern half of California thanks to three years of little to no production in the spring and early summer. The best reports have come from the eastern Mojave Desert on the Mojave National Preserve, but hunting there was very spotty with some hunters doing fair to good, but most finding the hunting difficult. “My hunting buddy and I got into five coveys of quail,” said Rashawn Gordon of Searchlight about his opening day hunt. “The biggest covey had about 50 birds and we ended up with 18 total for the day.” Gordon’s good report was actually fairly atypical. “I hunted the Mojave National Preserve on the opener and half day on Sunday. There were a lot more hunters this year compared to last year. We also saw more birds last year,” said Jon Millman of Torrance. “We found five coveys [of quail] opening day and no chukar, and we bagged a couple quail opening day. We picked up a couple singles on Sunday. “I also talked to a lot of hunters and asked how they were doing and we got checked by DFG late afternoon on the opener, and [the warden] said the most he had seen anyone get was four quail and no one had any chukar,” said Millman. “So my take is that it was not quite as good this year as last year -- and the added pressure was not helping. All in all it was still a lot of fun and I’m sure it was the best place to be this weekend,” said Millman. Alex Young of Los Angeles had a similar report for the Mojave Preserve. “The MNP was tough. We found a few decent-sized coveys, but my buddy said the numbers weren't as good as last year. I think chukar production may have been more limited than was initially reported [for this area]. We talked to at least 10 groups of hunters. A couple said they heard chukar, but nobody saw or shot them. We also talked to game warden who said no chukar were taken by hunters he had checked. He said highest quail bag he had seen was four, so the two of us felt lucky with the four we had bagged,” said Young. Anthony Hallak of San Diego hunted the Piute Mountains, normally one of the Preserve’s better quail areas, and said he hunted hard with his dog in that area for several hours and never saw or heard a bird. Hunters in other areas of the southern part of the state had reports like Hallak’s. In the Red Mountain area, most hunters reported not seeing -- or even hearing -- a single chukar. Ihab Karam of Panorama City said he and his group of hunters scoured the area both opening Saturday and Sunday, covering a lot of ground in both the Rand and El Paso mountain ranges while visiting a lot of guzzlers, all which were holding water. The net result was not a single chukar seen or heard. Across Highway 178 from the Red Mountain region in the southern Sierra Nevada, Mark Ely of Orange had a similar report. “We hunted the Walker Pass area and saw very few hunters and zero birds. We didn’t hear any shots and everyone we talked to said the same thing,” said Ely. He also spoke about how it was dry and parched in this area, which didn’t get any monsoon rains. “I have never seen sage so black and dead looking before, and I have been coming to this area for 30-plus years. It was a horrible opener, but a super, awesome, fun camping trip and hike.” Along the lower Colorado River, which was reported to have better bird numbers than other places, Robert Preston at Walter’s Camp near Palo Verde said there was very light hunting pressure. He only spoke with a couple of hunters over the weekend, but his own experience was a quick 1 1/2-hour hunt to bag four Gambel’s quail near Walter’s Camp. Barstow area guide Harold Horner said he had been scouting hard for several weeks before the opener in the West Mojave and had found a couple of pockets of holdover chukar, but on opening day he and four other hunters with four good bird dogs hunted hard in areas where he had found birds before the season, but they never saw or heard a chukar. “Where the heck did these birds go?” laughed Horner. “I had a spot where I saw 200 birds before the opener, but we never found ‘em. What are we going to do? I guess we’re going duck hunting.” In spite of drought, waterfowl hunting season off to good start With the shortage of water in the Sacramento Valley this year (the Kern National Wildlife Refuge will not open to hunting until December, if at all this year, because of low water allotments), hunting may be better on state-run wildlife area further south as more birds move into regions where there are better conditions this year. Combined with a record fall flight forecast, waterfowl hunters with a place to set decoys should have a good season. While opening day totals at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area in western Riverside County and the Wister Unit of the Imperial Wildlife Area on the south end Salton Sea (both which have adequate water supplies) would tend to support that theory, the opening week numbers are never indicative of the season as a whole. The 221 hunters on opening Saturday (Oct. 18) at San Jacinto shot a total of 553 ducks and 36 coots for a 2.67 birds-per-hunter average. That is a record number of hunters at San Jacinto for a single day. At Wister, opening Saturday drew 409 hunters and they shot 2,060 ducks, two geese, and 56 coots for a 5.18 average. (On last year’s opener, the average birds per hunter was slightly lower at 2.47 and 4.54, respectively.) On Sunday at Wister, there were just 191 hunters who bagged 323 ducks, two geese, and 20 coots for a 1.81 average. At San Jacinto on Wednesday this week, there were 132 hunters who shot 205 ducks and 36 coots for a 1.83 average. Teal have been the dominate birds in the bag at both areas so far into the season. At San Jacinto, a total of 193 cinnamon teal and 184 greenwing teal topped the bag totals for the two days. There were also 188 shovelers, 46 wigeon, 45 ringnecks, and 41 redheads to round out the top numbers of birds in the bag. At Wister, the opening two days saw 799 greenwings, 619 cinnamons, an incredible 379 mallards (nearly a mallard per hunter opening day!), 241 shovelers, 154 pintail, and 78 wigeon to round out the top six species in the bag. While the snow geese aren’t yet at Wister in big numbers, there were two greater whitefront geese and one cackling goose taken so far. Only 27 hunters gave the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge a try opening day (managed as part of Wister), and they bagged just 25 ducks (eight greenwings, seven cinnamons, five shovelers, four mallards, and a pintail) for a .93 average. END

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