AUGUSTA, Maine — Sportsmen told a legislative budget committee on Wednesday that they are willing to shell out a few dollars extra for a hunting or fishing license if it means keeping more wardens and biologists in the field.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has proposed increasing hunting and fishing license fees by $2.50 next year followed by a $1 increase in 2011.
DIF&W officials say the fee hikes will avoid more drastic personnel cuts as they seek to cover their share of a budget gap estimated at $838 million and likely to grow larger.
Commissioner Roland “Danny” Martin said he has been asked by lawmakers what would happen to the department’s two-year budget if it didn’t get the estimated $2.3 million generated from the additional fees.
“The answer is instead of eliminating seven positions we’d be eliminating 22 or 23,” Martin told members of the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee.
While other parts of DIF&W’s budget proposal were criticized Wednesday, the fee increases encountered little opposition during a public hearing.
Don McAllister of Hampden, who has been hunting for about 60 years, described the licenses as a good deal. McAllister told committee members how he recently saw an advertisement for guided big-game hunts costing $3,000.
“My last buck weighed 210 pounds and I paid $33 for my license,” McAllister said.
Likewise, retired DIF&W biologist Paul Johnson calculated that he pays 11 cents a day for his licenses for the year. Even if he only gets outside a few days a year, that’s still only a few dollars a day.
“A Maine hunting and fishing license is a very, very good deal for the opportunities it provides,” Johnson said. “I firmly believe I represent a lot of hunters and fishermen not here today that I believe will gladly pay a few more dollars.”
“I feel we have no choice but to increase the license fees,” added Michael Witte, a New Harbor resident and vice chairman of DIF&W’s Advisory Council. “It’s the cost of doing business.”
The sole opposition to the fee increases came from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the state’s largest organization representing hunters and fishermen.
SAM executive director George Smith said “$3.50 matters” to people who just lost a job. Those few dollars add up when you factor in that Maine requires separate licenses for different activities, such as turkey hunting and trapping, or when buying for a family, he said.
Instead, Smith said he would support allowing Maine residents to hunt and fish for free during the current recession.
Smith also said it is time that all of the hikers, kayakers, bird-watchers and others who enjoy the outdoors — and sometimes have to be assisted by wardens — to start chipping in, too.
“Sportsmen understand user fees and so should the public,” Smith said.
That “pay to play” sentiment appeared to have broad support among lawmakers and speakers. One option floated Wednesday was requiring canoes and kayaks to have a registration sticker or other decal.
One proposed DIF&W budget cut that ran into vocal opposition Wednesday concerned eliminating tagging stations for hunters of deer, moose and other big game animals. Instead, hunters would likely register their animals online or over the phone.
Several speakers said that would be impractical and could lead to rampant abuse of Maine’s game laws.
“I don’t know how it’s going to work in metropolitan areas, but it ain’t going to work in rural Maine,” said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake. “There are no computers in the middle of the woods. There is no phone service in the middle of the woods.”