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Conservationists Question Oregon Fish And Wildlife Over Latest Budget

<p>Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife director Curt Melcher gives a presentation about the agency's budget to a crowd at the Doubletree Inn in Northeast Portland. The agency faces a significant&nbsp;budget shortfall and is in search of new revenue&nbsp;sources.</p>

Tony Schick

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife director Curt Melcher gives a presentation about the agency's budget to a crowd at the Doubletree Inn in Northeast Portland. The agency faces a significant budget shortfall and is in search of new revenue sources.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife drew hard questions from conservationists Thursday night in Portland as it sought comment on its latest budget proposal.

In a stuffy hotel conference room over the hum of a projector, ODFW Director Curt Melcher explained the agency's current budget situation, how a new task force had been established to seek new revenue sources and that no major changes were planned for any of the agency's programs.

Changes, however, are precisely what many environmental groups want for an agency they say has long given too little attention to conservation of the many species not hunted or fished.

The problem is not unique to Oregon.

Fish and wildlife officials throughout the West are struggling with cash flow and an unmet need for monitoring and preserving of non-game species. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, for instance, faced a recent budget gap of $10 million. It, too, dedicates only a fraction of its funds to conservation outside of hunting and fishing.

Several questions from the crowd Thursday probed whether ODFW had plans to shift more of its budget toward non-game species conservation, and whether its search for new sources of funding would lead there.

"That is certainly one of the focuses," Melcher said.

Currently, just over 2 percent of the agency's $345 million budget is dedicated to its non-game wildlife conservation program. ODFW has no reliable funding source for that work, unlike more than $50 million in annual revenues from hunting and fishing licenses, or taxes on bullets and fishing gear.

"It's small potatoes, I will tell you, in contrast to hunting and fishing license revenues," Melcher told the crowd. However, he said, staff in the hunting and fishing programs sometimes spend significant time on conservation.

Melcher's agency faces an uncertain path forward. Its revenue sources have shrunk and its responsibilities have expanded. The state's population is growing, but a smaller percentage of its residents are purchasing hunting or fishing licenses.

The agency previously predicted a $32 million budget shortfall for 2015-17. A recent audit from the Secretary of State's Office found it had significant funding problems.

“Although shortfalls have been dealt with, in part, by fee increases, this and other solutions have not been able to address the underlying nature of this problem,” the report stated.

The Oregon Legislature convened a task force in 2015 to explore alternative funding sources for the agency. The task force thus far has a wide-ranging list of more than 30 ideas for new funding streams.

Those ideas include taxes on birdseed or outdoor gear, capitalizing on bottle deposits and claiming a slice of revenue from the state's marijuana tax.

The task force's final report to lawmakers is expected in September. The agency is accepting public comments on its budget until June 1.

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