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Wyoming Game and Fish Department faces budget cliff caused by declining licenses

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CASPER, Wyoming — The Wyoming Game and Fish Department faces a serious budget cliff because of declining numbers of hunters and anglers.

The agency could begin running out of money in the next three years if it doesn't find another source of revenue or increase license fees, The Casper Star-Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/1gdLhyb ).

Hunting and angling numbers are down, and license fees haven't increased since 2008.

The department recently went through a series of budget cuts that included limiting the number of fish stocked in reservoirs to ending a heritage expo. But officials say those changes won't be enough in the long term.

A task force is looking for solutions. The Governor's Fish and Wildlife Task Force has met twice and plans to gather twice more.

The Governor's Fish and Wildlife Task Force has met twice in Casper and plans to gather twice more, including meetings Wednesday and Thursday. Members have talked about everything from giving the Game and Fish Commission more authority to set license fees to asking the Legislature to absorb more costs of managing nongame animals.

Board chairman and Cheyenne attorney Ryan Lance said the Wyoming Game and Fish Department may need a full audit before the committee brings any long-term solutions to the governor. The audit could analyze some of the more controversial department expenditures such as stocking and access programs, Lance said.

"Our hope is if the group can identify whether these things are truly issues that need to be addressed or if it's a red herring," used to justify denying license increases, Lance said. "We can hopefully ferret that out."

About 80 percent of the department's operating budget comes from hunting and fishing licenses. Right now, the department must ask the Legislature for approval to raise those fees.

The Wyoming Legislature voted down increases in license fees in 2013, the first time the Legislature has refused to raise fees since 1937. Some lawmakers cited fat in the department such employee housing or elk feedgrounds.

The department has worked on some of those issues, Lance said, but a full audit could either show where cuts could be made or prove the department's efficiency.

Lance predicts an audit could take as little as a few months. Once finished, the committee would likely have a number of possible solutions, beginning with giving the Game and Fish Commission more authority over its budget.

The commission decides how money is spent in the department — voting to increase wages to match other agencies or continue maintenance on department buildings — but it is not in charge of its biggest source of revenue.

"The department should have the full range of widgets to move the dials not just for their budget but to build their budget to adjust going forward," Lance said.

The committee may also suggest what remains of fish and wildlife management programs dealing with endangered species be paid for from general funds and not license fees, Lance said.

Grizzly bear management, for example, is still being paid for by hunting and fishing license fees. But the species right now is protected by the federal government.

The committee is also looking at ways to increase hunter and angler numbers and fully fund the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Fund for habitat programs.

"Game and Fish is spending less than 1 percent of its revenue on outreach, and that is not going to cut it for the future," said Steve Kilpatrick, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation who also serves on the committee.


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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