Chip Minemyer | Report may make case for merging fish and boat, game commissions

The futures of Pennsylvania’s Game Commission and Fish and Boat Commission could begin to take shape in March with the release of a report into the feasibility of merging the two agencies.

The results of a study will be presented March 19 to the House Legislative Budget and Finance Committee. The report was to be made public at the committee’s February meeting, which was wiped out by weather.

In February 2013, the state House passed House Resolution 15, launching the process of determining if the two organizations should become one.

Both agencies strongly oppose the move, which they say would diminish support in both areas.

Game Commission chief Matt Hough and John Arway, executive director of the Fish and Boat Commission, talked with journalists Friday in a conference call through the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

Arway noted that Pennsylvania is the only state that still handles hunting and fishing/boating through two agencies.

Fish and Boat oversees boating regulations and safety programs, as well as titling and registration of the vehicles, and handles the protection of fish, reptiles and amphibian species. The commission raises fish for stocking to enhance recreation.

The Game Commission manages wildlife populations, operates hunter safety programs and monitors adherence to hunting rules and gun laws.

Hough said he can’t imagine a scenario where a merger wouldn’t mean a reduction in the number of people handling the various tasks for which the agencies are responsible.

Arway agreed.

“The primary concern we have here is about diluting our authority,” Arway said, calling the budgets and work done by the two agencies “like comparing apples and oranges.”

Hough said his agency has sought out opinions on the merger proposal, and has been told the better option is to remain separate.

“We prefer to do that,” Hough said.

No surprise there. But is that what’s best?

Both agencies have faced financial struggles in recent years, since both depend on participation fees, including for hunting and fishing licenses, to generate revenue.

Outdoor activities have been on the decline, in part because the state’s population is dropping.

“We’re on a fiscal slope rather than a fiscal cliff,” Arway said.

Arway said the state sold 1.2 million fishing licenses in 1990, but sells only 850,000 a year now. Fish and Boat has asked the legislature to raise license fees to offset the loss in revenue, but an increase has not been approved.

The Game Commission has been seeking an increase in hunting license fees since 1999, Hough said. That year, 1 million hunting licenses were sold, down from 1.3 million in 1983.

Hunting has continued to decline slowly in the years since, Game Commission reports show.

Both agencies do have other funding sources.

State wildlife agencies benefit from an excise tax on the manufacture of firearms, ammunition and archery equipment. In recent years, sales of shooting-related items have been at an all-time high, thanks to the national debate over gun control.

Fish and Boat does get a cut of state revenues from the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry. Those funds are to support the permitting process and impact studies for drilling sites.

“We would be in serious financial shape” if not for that outside money, Arway said.

He said his agency has asked the legislature to consider a model similar to what is done in Virginia, where a portion of taxes from the sales of fishing rods, boats and other items rolls back to the agency that oversees related recreational activities.

“It would be significant if we could get a revenue stream we could count on each year,” Arway said.

The arguments could be moot if that March 19 report shows a compelling case for merging the agencies under one banner, even though Arway said Fish and Boat has stated numerous times — in 1972, 1988, 2003 and 2012 — its desire to remain independent.

“We’ve long made the point that bigger government is not necessarily better government,” Arway said.

Wicked winter

Hough said it’s too early to know if the bitter cold of January and the heavy snow of February will hurt wildlife populations.

“We haven’t heard reports of any large amounts of deer mortality,” he said. “We have taken steps in recent years to make sure the deer herd is more in line with the available habitat that is out there.”

Arway, however, said he is concerned about the impact of freezing on fish populations, especially trout and other species in the smaller streams that criss-cross Centre County and much of the state.

“Harsh winters can have a negative impact on fish,” Arway said. “When streams freeze all the way down, trout can get stranded.”

Spring will bring both agencies a fuller picture of effects on wild creatures from this very harsh winter.