Warden and other positions restored to DIF&W Budget

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             The legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, which has been sharply critical of cuts in the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s new budget, voted to restore some of those cuts earlier this week.

            I joined others in testifying against the cuts in DIF&W’s Budget at an Appropriations Committee hearing a few weeks ago. Now, the IFW Committee’s recommendations will go back to Appropriations for final action before the entire House and Senate vote on the state’s new budget.

            You have to feel kind of sorry for DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, who told the IFW Committee “I’m not here today to support changes to the budget. I am not able to do that.” He said it is the “Chief Executive’s budget” and he must support it. He’s talking about Governor Paul LePage, who ordered the agency to reduce the budget to the 2015 spending level.

            I really felt bad for Chandler as he tried, for 2 ½ hours, to defend the budget cuts, most of which are indefensible.

            The Governor’s demand made no sense. It doesn’t save any tax money, nor is the agency reducing our hunting and fishing fees. As Representative Bob Duchesne, House Chair of the IFW Committee, noted, sportsmen’s fees were raised a few years ago to help the agency improve their work, and now we’ll get nothing for that money.

            Most troubling for me is that DIF&W has historically been underfunded, with lots of important work going undone. They failed to protect deer yards and we lost the deer herd in northern Maine. They were unable to stop the horrible spread of illegal fish species throughout the state, or do anything to get those fish out of those waters once they were discovered. They have no plan to stop the terrible toll that ticks are taking on our moose herd, resulting in a 50% reduction in moose hunting permits.  And I could go on and on.

            Most of the votes to restore cuts in the budget were divided with three IFW Committee members generally in support of the budget as presented.

            There is one bit of good news in the budget. A Fisheries Division position is being upgraded to add data management to that job. That’s another thing the agency has been unable to do: manage fisheries research data. This was an early goal of new Fisheries Division Director Francis Brautigam. Unfortunately, in another section of the budget, they cut the position of the person who is responsible for all of the agency’s data collection.

            In addition to restoring four game warden positions, the IFW Committee rejected the reduction of 321,000 miles in the wardens’ annual allotment. Rep. Duchesne did give us all a laugh when he noted that “The warden vehicles will last longer if they don’t move.”

            The committee considered a motion to restore two fish hatchery positions, but the motion failed. Those are seasonal jobs. After their work in the hatcheries is done, they work on deer research and fishing data collection. Fifty percent of the costs of these positions is paid with federal funds, which Brautigam said could be used in other ways, but that is not proposed in the budget, nor can that be done without matching state funds..

            One key job that was restored was the manager of the 24 fisheries and wildlife staff in the Bangor office. That’s where a lot of our research is done and this staffer is responsible for supervising all of that research, and doing what Chandler acknowledged is “a lot of paperwork.” They were going to unload management responsibilities there on Wildlife Division Director Judy Camuso, already very busy in her Augusta headquarters.

            Rep. Duchesne was very skeptical of this cut, stating, “We’re talking the most important research done in the state,” much of which is funded with federal dollars. I’m really pleased that this position was restored.

            Rep. Steve Wood reminded the committee that Governor LePage promised to fund 20% of DIF&W’s budget with tax money, but has never done that. Govenor LePage actually made that promise to me in person, and then on our SAM candidate questionnaire. It’s been a very big disappointment that he’s never even tried to keep his promise to us.

            Many years ago on behalf of SAM I succeeded in getting a law passed that requires 20% of DIF&W’s budget to be paid with tax dollars. Every two years, the governor and legislature have extended that requirement by two years. And sure enough, the new budget says they’ll do it in 2020.  Rep. Catherine Nadeau asked the committee to submit a letter to the Appropriations Committee asking them to fund 20% of the agency’s budget with tax money, now.

            Chandler also talked about his plan to eliminate printed lawbooks, so hunters and anglers would have to get those on their electronic devices. I think that’s a mistake. And he also said his staff is working on an app that would give us the fishing rules by lake and pond. But that’s already been done, by Ron Cote, and the app is readily available now, for free!

            As the work session wound down, Rep. Duchesne certainly expressed my opinion when he said, “I’m not willing to drastically underfund the department when I don’t understand why we’re doing it.”

            Well, of course, we all understand why Chandler proposed these cuts: the Governor made him do it!

            I noted that there were 10 members of the DIF&W staff in the room the afternoon of the work session on the budget, so not a lot was getting done that afternoon over at their office!

            Here’s an outline of my testimony on to the Appropriations Committee.

Appropriations Committee Hearing – DIF&W Budget

“We need to reduce the department’s size.” That was DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock’s response to a question from an IFW Committee member asking why he was proposing cuts throughout his agency’s budget, including to a decrease in positions and mileage in the Warden Service.

It is truly ridiculous to say this agency needs to be smaller. Lots of needs.

Doesn’t save tax money, nor does it reduce our fees.

Extension of law requiring 18% be paid with tax money.

Needs

Outdoor economy  – sporting camps story – loss of hunters and anglers – DIF&W marketing position

Fisheries – native brook trout ignored, damaged – invasive species spread state-wide – no effort to remove them from our waters – Long Pond story

Wildlife – loss of deer herd in northern Maine – inability to protect key deer wintering habitat – Claybrook Mountain Lodge

Wildlife – moose research – took years for Lee Kantar to get a small amount of funding to start researching the horrific problem of moose deaths from ticks. New Hampshire was way ahead of us on this. And we still have no solution.

Warden Service – Allagash withdrawal (“A district is going away,” said Colonel Wilkinson). Well, no, that area is still there. Wardens from adjacent districts will have the Allagash area added to their work. mileage cut of 321,000 miles.

I could talk for hours about all the important things that this agency currently can’t do. Please don’t support any of these budget cuts. And yes, you can continue to count on sportsmen to pay the bills, even while ignoring the fairness of giving the agency some tax money from the public which they serve.

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