Pending approval by the Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission next month, Tennessee’s hunting and fishing licenses are set to increase by about 22 percent across the board in 2015.
That announcement came today from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which went into full propaganda mode in an effort to sell the need for the increase to the state’s sportsmen.
The full list of current license fees and proposed new license fees is here. Basically, a sportsman license will increase from $136 to $166, while the general hunting/fishing license and each supplemental big game tag will increase from $28 to $34.
Now, before everyone gets worked up into a lather, let me point out that there are some caveats to Tennessee’s exorbitantly high hunting license fees. I’ll get to those in a moment.
But, first, let me say this: I would be more apt to shrug off the news of a hunting license fee hike and move on if TWRA simply said, “Hey…our current revenue vs. the costs of our services isn’t cutting it. We need more money.” But the wording of TWRA’s press release didn’t set too well with me, and I’m willing to guess that I’m far from alone.
TWRA starts off by saying, “For only the second time in 25 years,” TWRA is seeking a license rate increase — and that’s true enough. The agency’s last license price hike came in 2005. Prior to that, Tennessee hunting licenses hadn’t gone up in price since 1990.
The agency follows that with: “It wasn’t too long ago that the sight of a white-tailed deer, a bald eagle or a wild turkey in Tennessee was a rare treat. These and other key wildlife and fish are now thriving across the state, thanks to intensive restoration and management by the TWRA.”
Again, I won’t necessarily bicker with that. The northern Cumberland Plateau has especially benefited from wildlife restoration programs. We have elk and black bears roaming our forests now, and as recently as 20 years ago you wouldn’t catch a glimpse of either in these parts.
But, then, after a statement from TWRA executive director Ed Carter extolling the need for the price hike, the agency drops this tidbit: The license fee increase sought by TWRA is the “smallest increase in the TWRA’s 65 year history.”
I understand the need for propaganda to sell your point. I do. But if you’re a Tennessee sportsman and your newfound knowledge that this 22 percent cost increase is the smallest in TWRA history makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, raise your hand. No hands? Figured so.
Here’s what the press release doesn’t say: Tennessee’s hunting and fishing license fees are among the nation’s highest, even before the 22 percent increase. Only a handful of states currently have license fees higher than Tennessee’s.
The press release also doesn’t point out that while this may be only the second license fee increase in 25 years, it also means that if you’re a deer hunter in Tennessee, the cost of your license and permits will have almost doubled since 2004. Doubled!
In 2004, Tennessee hunters paid $21 for a hunting/fishing combo license, and $18 for each big game weapons permit. Deer hunters who took advantage of the archery, muzzleloader and gun seasons paid a grand total of $75. With the looming increase, the same license and the same three permits will cost a grand total of $136. This may be just the second cost increase in 25 years, and it might be the smallest price increase in TWRA’s history, but that’s still an unsettling statistic. (The cost of the all-inclusive sportsman license during that same time frame has increased by 66 percent, from $100 in 2004 to $166 in 2015.)
The press release doesn’t make mention of the fact that you can drive to several other states and hunt as a non-resident (hunting privileges generally cost far more for non-residents than for residents of any particular state) cheaper than you can hunt as a resident in Tennessee. One of those states is Ohio, where the deer hunting is considered much better than here in Tennessee.
Here’s the truth: Tennessee’s hunting and fishing licenses are already substantially costlier than most of the surrounding states. The only one that is comparable is Virginia, where a sportsman license is $123. You can hunt anything that is legal in most other neighboring states for less than $100 a year.
With this proposed increase, Tennessee’s hunting and fishing licenses will cost more than any state east of the Mississippi River. Period. They will also be among the nation’s highest. I haven’t done enough research to determine exactly where Tennessee’s new license fees will rank; the western states are much more complicated and I didn’t look at all of them.
However, of the states I did look at, Oregon was the costliest for hunters, at $164.75 for an all-inclusive residential hunting license. (Back east, the costliest state is Wisconsin, at $165.) I can’t say it with certainty, but it’s quite possible that Tennessee’s license fee increase will make the Volunteer State that costliest state in the nation for hunting.
Now, as I mentioned, there are caveats. Unlike most states, Tennessee does not receive state tax dollars to fund its wildlife conservation efforts. TWRA’s funding comes from two primary sources — license sales, and the federal Pittman-Robertson Tax, which is applied to the purchase of items such as ammunition.
There is a benefit to that setup: because TWRA’s biologists and wildlife managers don’t have to turn to the state’s lawmakers when they need money, the state’s lawmakers generally have less say in what TWRA does. That isn’t a guarantee, of course; the state legislature recently restructured the TWRA’s governing council — the Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission — and legislators occasionally pry into other wildlife matters as well.
Since TWRA can’t turn to the state for more money from the taxpayer coffers, ensuring that the agency’s budget stays in the black becomes the responsibility of sportsmen. Thus, the exorbitant license fees.
But one has to question where the breaking point is for Tennessee sportsmen? One of the reasons TWRA is pressed for money is because license sales are declining – which makes this a bit of a catch 22. In my business, newspaper sales are declining. As those sales decline, revenue from the sales declines. The easiest way to make up that revenue would be to increase the single copy price of the newspaper, but that would be the best and most effectual way to ensure that sales decline even more. And I suspect the same will hold true with hunting license sales.
Among sportsmen who do continue to buy licenses, how many will buy sportsmen’s licenses? TWRA and other state wildlife management agencies benefit from their sportsmen’s licenses because hunters and anglers will often buy the all-inclusive license rather than purchasing licenses and permits individually. For example, a hunter who hunts for turkey and deer will purchase a $136 sportsman license, even though he doesn’t trout fish, hunt WMAs or hunt small game. With the fee increase, it seems possible — if not likely — that this will result in additional revenue losses for TWRA.
Proponents of the license fee increase are fond of pointing out that the increase amounts to only 58 cents per week. That’s a small price to pay, they say, for a year of hunting and fishing privileges . . . especially in a world where we pay $10 for movie tickets or $50 for a meal at a modest sit-down restaurant. They also point out that even with the price increase, it will only cost 45 cents per day to hunt and fish in Tennessee.
But that’s a disingenuous argument. For the sportsman who hunts and fishes religiously, it’s a valid argument. But for the weekend warriors that make up the vast majority of sportsmen, it doesn’t add up. The typical sportsman hunts 8-10 days during deer season, 4-5 days during turkey season and spends a few Saturdays each summer tossing crank baits. I’ll use myself as an example. This year I decided against purchasing the sportsman license but still purchased the general hunting and fishing license, a WMA permit, a muzzleloader permit and a big game gun permit. The total cost was $105. I fished two days and have hunted five days thus far. For me, it’s hardly pennies a day. And the question I must ask myself next year is this: is it worth it?
I’ve written in the past about how the declining number of people who participate in hunting and shooting sports across America will eventually doom those same sports. The surveys have been done, and they aren’t pretty. Unless something happens to reverse the trends, the number of people who participate in hunting will continue to free fall. That not only spells big trouble for cash-strapped wildlife management agencies like TWRA and for wildlife conservation efforts in general, but it also means hunters will lose a lot of the political clout that they rely upon to fend off encroachment from anti-hunting organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States.
Among the dwindling number of hunters, I suspect, are guys like me: we purchase hunting licenses, but we don’t really hunt that much — not like we used to. We mean to get our butts in the deer stand or in the quail fields a little more when life slows down and we can find the time, but that never happens. In the meantime, though, we’re still counted as hunters because we purchase our hunting licenses.
As the cost of hunting licenses continues to go up, how many of those guys will stop purchasing licenses altogether?
I suspect that TWRA’s hunting license cost increase is inevitable . . . a necessity unless the agency is to cut a lot of the services that we rely on as hunters. But I also suspect that these inevitable and necessary moves are going to prod sport hunting just a little quicker towards its ultimate demise.