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Two months of free fishing could be costly to DNR coffers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Governor Jim Justice’s decision to suspend fishing license for April and May promises to be an expensive gesture. During the early days of the pandemic in late March, Justice made the decision to waive the fishing license requirement for the month of April. This week, he extended the waiver through the month of May.

The costs are still being calculated. However, figures from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources show the impact for April is close to a Million dollars. According to DNR figures license sales during April 2019 were $2,108,276.50 and the license sales for April 2020 were $1,140,556.00. The difference is a loss of $967,720.50.

The figures reflect both fishing and hunting license sales for the month. It’s yet to be known what the extension of “free” fishing for the month of May will cost. During May 2019 license sales were $1,084,231.00.

According to DNR Director Steve McDaniel hunting license were lower, but not nearly as much as the fishing license sales for the month.

“April and May are typically our biggest months for fishing license sales,” said McDaniel.

The 2019 sales reflected a jump in license sales created by the Gold Rush. However, during the pandemic, the 2020 Gold Rush was put off over fears of social distancing challenges and the loss of access to some of areas where the fish would be stocked. Governor Jim Justice closed down cabins, lodges, and campgrounds in the state parks and those remain closed. McDaniel expected the Park System’s losses, like most things these days, will be substantial.

“We’re going to lose a lot of money between Parks and Wildlife. We anticipate Millions of dollars lost,” he said.

According to McDaniel each department is tracking the losses as instructed by the Governor’s office and plan to submit a final tally once things completely reopen. Parks may take an even bigger hit since Memorial Day is one of the biggest weekends of the year for overnight guests. The holiday is coming up with all State Parks lodging and facilities still shutdown.

A reopening plan for State Park facilities is being submitted to the Justice Administration and the Governor’s pandemic response team. The parks have never actually closed, but all of their facilities have been idle. The public is still free to hike in the parks, but all fixed facilities are closed.

“Cabins and campgrounds will be first to reopen, those are the easiest for social distancing. Lodges will be a while,” McDaniel said.

The biggest question is whether the lost revenue will be restored. Governor Justice has maintained his confidence Congress will allow states to use pandemic relief money to back fill budget shortfalls. Those shortfalls in West Virginia are already steep and growing with each passing day. Although there is legislation in Congress now moving to address the state revenue losses in some form, the question remains whether the Division of Natural Resources Wildlife Section or State Parks would be eligible for the funding.

“I’ve had a lot of discussions with our Director, Steve McDaniel. He assures me we’re in good shape. Moneywise, we’re okay and we were moving ahead in a good way. I think we’re okay,” Governor Justice said this week when asked about the potential cost to extend free fishing.

“To tell you the truth I believe at one point in time our fishing license sales were tracking above normal, so I don’t think this is going to hurt us, I really don’t,” he added.

The State Parks derive funding from the state’s General Revenue budget, but the DNR’s wildlife section is funded entirely by license sales and federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment based on the number of license sales and other factors like available land to hunt and water to fish. West Virginia gets a significant annual payment of those taxes from the sale of hunting license or PIttman-Robertson funds. But the Mountain State gets the minimum allocation for fishing license since we don’t have a large amount of water for fishing.

According to DNR figures, during Fiscal Year 2020 apportionment from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to West Virginia from the Wildlife Restoration Fund or Pittman-Robertson Act funds was $6,173,284.  The allocation from the USFWS to West Virginia under the Sport Fish Restoration Act or Dingell-Johnson Act was $3,697,284.

The lack of license sales in April and May is not expected to impact money from the Dingell-Johnson money, but the loss of actual license sales remains real and is significant for the agency’s operating budget.

Despite Justice’s optimism about the federal government coming through, it remains to be seen where Parks and the Wildlife Section of the DNR would stand in the priority of funding restoration.

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