By Howard Meyerson
LANSING – A $28.8 million wildlife management budget may seem a lot to some, but Michigan wildlife officials say hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts can expect to see continuing program cuts.
“The problems we’re facing don’t show up in the budget. They show up in the difference between the work plans we develop to lay out where we want to be and what we can actually afford,” said Russ Mason, Michigan’s wildlife chief with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Mason recently reviewed the fiscal year 2012 wildlife division budget and the available funding for wildlife programs. The presentation was given to the Natural Resources Commission to bring new commissioners up to speed.
Declining license sales and hunting participation is having an affect, according to Mason. Wildlife programs are largely funded by hunting license sales and federal excise taxes on hunting gear and ammunition, along with grants, donations and other federal funds.
State general fund tax revenues make up only 9 percent of the DNR’s budget. Five percent is returned to local units of government as payment in lieu of taxes for state holdings. Four percent remains with the DNR, according to Mason. Wildlife programs receive $1.7 million in general fund revenues which is spent largely to monitor tuberculosis in the deer herd and high-fence hunting and breeding operations.
“We’re now operating below minimum standard,” Mason said. “People are going to start noticing it. Things aren’t going to happen. We aren’t going to be doing the work we have done in the past.”
Mason cited several examples of work no longer being done in the field. The division now has 140 employees, cut back from 240 when coffers were flush. The 2012 program reductions include:
* Cutting back the prescribed burn program. Only essential burns for habitat development will continue in southern Michigan. The change affects species like turkey and deer, but it also means DNR wildlife staff may not get “fire qualified” according to Mason, which in turn means they will not be available to fight fires.
* Eliminating the mid-year waterfowl survey. Mason said Michigan is now the only state in the Mississippi Flyway that does not fly mid-winter.
* Reducing wolf census efforts to alternate years, likewise for moose and elk population surveys.
Cuts also will impact managed waterfowl areas, private land programs designed to give hunters access to additional lands in southern Michigan, and maintaining wildlife openings and equipment maintenance.
“What we are looking at now is whether you want me to cut off, my left leg and three fingers on my right hand or just the thumb on my left hand and toes on my right foot,” Mason said. “It’s not that we don’t want to do these things. We just don’t have the resources any more and we are at a point where any refocusing of our efforts means someone else is going to get shorted.’”
Mason said he had hoped more hunters would participate in the 2012 Pure Michigan Hunt lottery which gives away a package of hunting licenses for elk, bear, turkey, deer and waterfowl along with gifts like a rifle, crossbow and other donated gear.
“We have 630,000 deer hunters in Michigan and only 12,000 thought they could spend $4 on a chance to win,” Mason said. “We were hoping for more like 10 percent participation (63,000 entrants) which would have given us another million dollars. But this (lack of participation) translates directly to a decline in services.”
Jennifer Olson, a wildlife staffer that works with wildlife budget and financial aid programs, said 2012 spending is moving along as expected. There is money in the budget, but much of it does not get spent until the summer months and last quarter of the fiscal year.
Mason said it may be time for a license fee increase and that various organizations have expressed a willingness to support it. A Michigan deer hunting license cost $15. Only Hawaii is cheaper, he said.
Mason said next year will be worse.
“We are anticipating a $4 million to $5 million drop next year,” Mason said. “And with that we will have to radically re-base where we do work in the state.
“We will have to set priorities around the state. There won’t be the resources to do it all; and rather than do it half-assed statewide, we will do a good job some place.”
Mason said the DNR’s wildlife division is likely to focus more on state lands south of Clare, the areas closest to the population centers.
Copyright © 2012 Howard Meyerson