Robbing game cash fund is slap at state’s hunters and anglers

A Division of Wildlife hatchery technician stocks trout from the Durango state fish hatchery. Fishery operations such as this are funded by DOW’s game cash fund, which includes license fees as well as some federal excise tax money.

The newly occupied seats in the Republican-dominated House barely are warm and already the money grab has begun.

According to an e-mail action alert from the Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance, Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, is carrying House Bill 1150, legislation that would steal money from the Division of Wildlife and give it to the state Water Conservation Board.

The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, would lift $5 million each year for 10 years from the Division of Wildlife’s wildlife cash fund and send it to the water board’s storage project construction fund.

Put aside for a while Sonnenberg’s reputation as being generally ill-disposed to the Division of Wildlife and its purviews. It may be his name on this bill is a coincidence.

But robbing the game cash fund, which is money from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and specific federal wildlife grants, is a blatant slap at the state’s hunters and anglers.

Pursekeepers in the state government have long desired access to the DOW’s game cash fund, which pays most of the agency’s bills, from salaries and building public shooting ranges to feeding winter-starved deer and elk.

Most of the money, say 75 percent or so, comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. That amount, as you might guess, has dropped a bit in recent years.

Two leading reasons are the recession has fewer nonresident hunters traveling to Colorado, and a simultaneous trimming of elk licenses as herds reach desired population levels.

But still, game cash is a fund to which people — you and everyone else who buys a fishing or hunting license — contribute every year, sometimes several times a year.

Lawmakers know that and are eager to tap a fund into which residents and non-residents alike pay into.

Money also comes into the game cash fund from the federal government through excise taxes raised by the Dingell-Johnson and Pittman-Robertson acts.

The Dingell-Johnson act, also known as the Sport Fish Restoration Act, collects money from taxes on the sale of fishing-related items (including motorboat fuel)  and returns that money to each state based on the number of licensed anglers.

Similarly, the Pittman-Robertson Act (Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act) collects excise taxes on hunting-related items and each year allocates that money to the states.

The two funds are administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Early accounting by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the Division of Wildlife (not the state budget) is tentatively scheduled to receive around $20 million this year from the two federal programs.

Another $1 million or so comes from the Land and Water Conservation Fund from the sale of oil and gas leases.

It’s important to note that both federal aid programs were initiated at the demand of sportsmen concerned that state budgets were not addressing the needs of wildlife and wildlife-related recreation.

Both acts impose serious penalties on states for violating the restrictions of the acts, and it’s common that Colorado and other states closely monitor their wildlife spending so as to remain in compliance with the federal laws.

Which brings us to HB 1150.

As written, the bill would cause game cash funds to be diverted from such things as wildlife law enforcement, raising and stocking fish and managing big-game herds to instead funding someone’s favorite Front Range water project “only if the (water conservation) board determines that doing so does not violate federal law.”

But the bill already violates federal law as it’s written.

The enabling federal legislation says that participation in the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration program prohibits states against diverting license fees “for any other purpose than the administration of the state fish department.”

Similar restrictions apply to the wildlife restoration act.

The DOW, with 104 dams, is the largest dam owner in the state and its engineers are always out inspecting, improving and repairing dams.

Sportsmen, through their license dollars, already are paying the wildlife agency to maintain the water and habitat that sustains fish and wildlife.

The Legislature is throwing a smoke screen when it says the water projects are for wildlife.

And the feds are watching. In March 2009 the Service blocked a similar raid by the Massachusetts Legislature.

Sources say the regional office of the Fish and Wildlife Service already has said the proposed bill is a diversion of federal funds.

The Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance warns the Division of Wildlife not only would lose the $5 million a year to the water conservation board but also an estimated $21 million each year from federal aid.

Why take $26 million, about one-quarter of its current budget, each year from the agency whose statutory obligations are to protect and enhance wildlife habitat?

That money currently goes to increase our opportunities for wildlife recreation, improving wildlife habitat and ensuring the future of fish and wildlife in Colorado.

An end result of those efforts is wildlife-dependent businesses — outfitters, sporting goods stores, entire communities across the state — share in the some $1 billion generated each year in wildlife-related economic impact.

But greedy hands, more interested in penalizing every angler and hunter rather than initiating a user-pay method for funding water projects, are grabbing at sportsmen’s dollars.

We can only hope more sensible minds prevail when the voting starts.


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