Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Budget – Our Challenge

Cousin Ron and I, as do most folks who grew up hunting and fishing in Paradise in the 1940s and ‘50s, take frequent trips down Memory Lane. We all see how expensive things are these years, and there is certainly little argument about many of the things we need. But how many costs are actually comparable to – or cheaper than – the late 1950s?

I like to start with context – and gas prices. In the late ‘50s, I made anywhere from 80 cents to a buck an hour for full-time work. A gallon of gas ranged from 19.9 cents (in gas wars) to 29.9 cents day to day. Today, we see gas prices ranging from 10 to 12 times that – still about the same percentage of lower-wage incomes – and most of us make well over 10 or 12 times those 1950s wages.

What about our hunting and fishing licenses? In the late 1950s, a resident hunting and fishing license, with deer and elk seals (tags) cost $13.50. This year, for the same licenses, I paid $126.55 (with dealer fee). Yes, there are other permits and fees we often add, but do the math and you will see that, apples to apples, the out-of-pocket cost for my tags is cheaper now than when I first started hunting and fishing.

So, what’s the total cost of operating our Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), today? And that $30+ million hole it is facing over the next biennium? How did it happen, what has been done about it, and how will it be filled? Again, I like looking at context. This is complicated, since until the early 1990s, the State Department of Game and the Department of Fisheries were two different agencies. Those 1950s budget numbers are hard-found. Still, with the help of folks at DFW, the Washington State Library and Oregon (ODFW has an excellent history online, and its budgets follow a similar trajectory to ours), we have a starting point. Understand that the numbers I pass along are approximate, intended to provide a general picture of the challenges facing us. Remember, also, that all the state natural resource agencies, combined, get well under two percent of Washington’s total budget.

In 1955, the Washington Department of Game operated on a budget of just over $3.5 million and the State Fisheries folks were somewhere around $3 million. In 2017, DFW expenditures for managing terrestrial wildlife (lands, habitat, hunting, etc.) were just under $100 million, and on the fisheries/aquatic side (hatcheries, fishing, habitat and species work) added up to about $160 million. Obviously, there is some overlap of fish and wildlife expenditures in both those numbers. (Double these numbers to get the biennial – two-year – budgets.)

What has driven these budget increases so far beyond my “context’ of 10 to 12 times the costs of the 1950s? Consider only a few of the hundreds of changes in the last six decades. In 1976, the US extended its control over Pacific Ocean fishing out to 500 miles – adding several hundred thousand square miles to Washington’s responsibilities. We have seven and a half million people – well more than twice as many as 1970 – in the smallest western state, with a relatively small amount of public land. We have a great diversity of fish and wildlife in a wide variety of habitats – wet mountains, dry mountains, desert, semiarid and humid lowlands, temperate rainforests, open pine forests, salt water, small to large streams and lakes of all sizes. Add the 24 treaty tribes with rights to fish and wildlife and their management. Each combination of place and species and rules requires one or another level of specialists to manage it.

That looming $30 million budget shortfall? Several factors are involved. DFW is still struggling from cuts imposed during the recession, yet our Legislative approved expenses without funding. License sales and general fund allocations have fallen behind management costs. Several one-time funding band-aids are expiring. The Department has eliminated several positions and curtailed a number of fisheries and other operations. [Note that everyone with whom I discuss this has a deep and genuine concern about agency priorities – ranging from fish hatcheries to the diminishing statewide number of enforcement agents over the past couple decades. These battles will, and must, be fought through the various public wildlife and budget advisory committees. Still, if we can’t keep our agency functioning, those arguments will be moot.]

After a lot of public ourtreach, DFW is asking for more legislative help this year. Without it, $30.5 million of services will have to be cut, beginning next year. DFW is asking the Legislature for the ability to raise license fees (last increase was in 2011), keep the Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement fee, and for more money from the General Fund. (The Wildlife Commission has yet to settle on that fee increase request, but look for something between five and twelve percent,) Together, these will keep the agency on track managing our wildlife.

You will much more detail about DFW, its budget, and the future in the “Draft Long-Term Funding Plan” at (or Google “long term funding plan WDFW.”)

This budget challenge belongs to all of us. This is our wildlife on our lands. This is our agency, staffed by folks we have asked to keep wild things and wild places for those who come after us. When the Legislature takes up these budget questions, we need to have our voices heard. And we must continue to help our agency develop its priorities.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized