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More free licenses could prove costly

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Imagine a West Virginia hunting and fishing license that cost less than 20 bucks.

That's right. Instead of costing $35, the combination hunting-and-fishing "sportsman's license" could cost $19 or less.

But there's an "if" involved - and a pretty darned big one at that.

If everyone in the state who currently enjoys free hunting and fishing privileges were required to purchase a license, enough people would be paying for Division of Natural Resources' fish, wildlife and law enforcement programs to justify lowering the price.

"You have to wonder how much better off everyone would be if all sportsmen bought a cheap license," said Steve Brown, the DNR's senior planner. "More people would hunt and fish because licenses would be more affordable."

It's a little surprising - at least it was to me - that any representative of a state fish and wildlife agency would ever talk about lowering license prices. Since I started buying licenses in 1970, prices have gone nowhere but up.

Brown did the math to calculate the effect of a larger license-buying base because members of the Legislature are currently considering three bills that would likely have just the opposite effect. Each of the bills would force DNR officials to give free or heavily discounted licenses to specific groups of people.

One would allow present and past members of the armed services to purchase lifetime hunting and fishing licenses, which currently cost $805, for only $100. Another bill would grant free licenses to non-resident landowners and their resident children. Yet another would allow members of the West Virginia National Guard to obtain free annual licenses during their terms of service and, upon retirement from the Guard, free licenses for life.

Brown said that if all three bills pass and are signed by the governor, the DNR would lose an estimated $2.5 million a year in license money.

"That's about 16 percent of our revenue, and about 10 percent of our annual agency budget," he added. "If sportsmen want us to continue our deer, bear, turkey, trout and other fish and wildlife programs at their current levels, the remaining license buyers would have to pick up the difference."

Currently, because resident landowners and a large number of senior citizens are already exempt from having to buy licenses, 57 percent of the state's hunters and anglers are paying for wildlife programs the other 43 percent are getting for free.

"If the Legislature passes the bills it's considering, the percentage of sportsmen footing the bill would drop even lower," Brown said. "We've been joking that if this keeps going the way it's going, somewhere down the road one last SOB is going to have to shell out $15 million for a hunting license."

When license revenue drops, so does the DNR's share of federal money obtained from excise taxes on purchases of guns, ammunition and fishing tackle. The number of license holders helps determine how much each state is entitled to. The DNR currently gets about $8 million a year, but Brown said that could drop dramatically if the Legislature approves the bill giving low-cost lifetime licenses to veterans.

"We estimate there are 49,000 individuals in the current license-holding population that would meet the qualifications set forth in the bill," he said. "That's about 19 percent of our license buyers."

"No one in the DNR disputes the value or worth of any of these people being considered for free licenses. But giving away licenses in dribs and drabs is how we've gotten to the point that only 57 percent of our hunters and anglers are actually licensed."


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