The Washington state legislature refused to act on several revenue requests from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, (WDFW) and have left the agency with a $7 million shortfall in their budget.
State lawmakers did not renew the Columbia River Endorsement, which the department had asked to be renewed until 2023. They also refused a request to allow the agency an increase in fees and licenses, and did not give them as much from the general fund as was requested.
The WDFW now faces some tough decisions on how to offset the lack of those funds.
The Columbia River Endorsement has been required for anglers age 15 and above that fish the Columbia River and its tributaries since 2010. The cost was $8.75 per year, and the department has used the revenue to monitor and enforce fisheries in the Columbia River Basin.
The endorsement brought in about $3.3 million each year.
The endorsement will now expire on July 1, but there will be no refund for anglers that have already purchased it this year.
Many fisheries are only allowed if the department conducts monitoring and enforcement to assure compliance with ESA rules. The lack of funding may make it hard to continue some of those fisheries.
The legislative actions took many in the WDFW by surprise.
“We thought it was moving along,” said WDFW policy director Nate Pamplin of the endorsement. “The department had requested legislation to extend it. That legislation did not pass and the endorsement expires at the end of June.”
“Without having the endorsement contributes to the $7 million shortfall that we have,” he added. “The fee bill did not pass, and the legislature gave us 24 million in general funds, but there is still a pretty sizable deficit.”
How will the department solve this problem?
“That’s what we are having to look at,” said Pamplin. “Without the funds were not sure yet what fisheries will be at risk.”
Programs or services that could be impacted include investment in conservation habitat, hatchery improvements, expanded fishing opportunities, hunting access and wildlife area improvements.
Additional law enforcement was another need that the extra funds would have addressed.
There could also be layoffs within the department.
The governor’s proposed 2019-21 budget did not include the $12.9 million that WDFW had requested to enhance fish and wildlife conservation and $4.2 million for habitat improvements, and those funds were not awarded by the legislature, either.
Many sport fishing advocates are unhappy about the loss of revenue, and the issues it may cause.
“I think all of us in the angling community are happy to pay more to get more, and happy to help the agency.” said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association (NSIA), “But paying more to get less was problematic and the legislature would not support it.”
Hamilton also wonders if there was a message behind the legislature’s actions, related to the recent push to unravel the Columbia River Reforms. This includes the very unpopular vote in Spokane last March when the WDFW Commission voted to make alterations to the reforms.
“I think they were trying to communicate something to the agency,” she said “The commission kind of walked the agency out on a plank.”
Another sticking point in raising fees was the full closure of the Columbia River to all salmon and steelhead fishing for months last year, and the partial and total closures of tributary waters as well, something that could happen again this year.
Charging more for licenses while these closures are reducing opportunity has aggravated many sport anglers.
Some sport fishers chaffed at paying for the endorsement as well as the expected license increase and will be glad it is gone, but the end result could be less fishing opportunity, according to WDFW’s director.
“The endorsement provided needed funding for monitoring and enforcement activities,” said Kelly Susewind, the WDFW director in a news release. “We’re evaluating our path forward with these fisheries, which not only provide good opportunities for anglers but also significant economic benefits to communities in the Columbia River Basin.”
One bright spot in the budget is that funding for programs to help the southern resident Puget Sound orcas were kept intact. The $1.1 billion investment includes funding for an additional 50 million Chinook smolts to be released into Puget Sound and the Columbia River to provide food for the orcas.
The southern Puget Sound killer whales have been struggling, partly because of a shortage of their primary food, Chinook salmon.
Now the hard work for the department begins, as they try to balance their budget.
“We have not figured out what can be sustained, and what can’t,” said Pamplin. “Also, that 24 million was just a onetime measure. In 2 years’ time we are facing another budget shortfall without intervention.”
WDFW’s proposed budget was established using the recommendations of a citizen Budget and Policy Advisory Group, and was developed after a third-party consultant reviewed the department and found that WDFW’s management and policies were not causing the shortfall.
In other funding news, the state did provide $750,000 to study the effects of removing the lower Snake River Dams. In several instances federal judges have ruled that fisheries managers need to look at the possibility of removing the dams to help endangered salmon and steelhead.