Legislators were surprised yesterday to learn that the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department has a surplus of $3 million. I could see their eyes light up as thoughts of how to spend that money danced in their heads. My eyes lit up too!
Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock led a lengthy list of speakers from his agency who introduced themselves to the legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee yesterday and discussed current projects and issues. Next week the committee will hear from all the lobbyists who appear before the committee.
Most of DIF&W’s leaders were on hand today, including Maine Warden Service Colonel Joel Wilkinson, Maine Warden Service Major Chris Cloutier, Information and Education Division Director Bonnie Holding, Assistant to the Commissioner Christl Theriault (who is the agency’s point person on legislative matters), Wildlife Division Director Judy Camuso, Fisheries Division Director Mike Brown, Licensing and Registration Division Director Bill Swan, Acting Director of Engineering Rick Parker, and Safety Officer Mike Sawyer.
I was surprised by the absence of Deputy Commissioner Andrea Erskine, who has been front and center at the legislature for many years. But it turned out that Andrea was on vacation. She picked a great week to be in Florida!
The committee also heard a presentation on rules, and had a bit of discussion about beverages, agreeing to extend the rule that allows only water to be consumed during committee hearings and work sessions to include soft drinks. One committee member promptly placed a bottle of Moxie in front of him! Alas, there was no suggestion that microbrews be allowed.
Chandler and IFW Committee Senate Chair Paul Davis opened Chandler’s presentation with a few jokes, clearly very comfortable with each other. Chandler presented an overview of his agency’s organization, funding sources, and budget. He said that 90 percent of DIF&W’s budget is “self-funded” meaning the money is paid in a variety of ways by sportsmen. I have been seeking a more detailed accounting of the agency’s funding, for the last complete fiscal year, for more than 4 months, without success, but recently submitted the request again, at the encouragement of Andrea Erskine. If I get it, I’ll have a report for you.
Chandler surprised me by reporting that his landowner relations program was inadequate. I’ve proposed an expansion of that program, in legislation sponsored by Representative Ellie Espling. Chandler’s comments today will certainly help!
Chandler explained his agency’s carrying account – essentially unspent revenues – and noted that the legislature must approve the use of that money. In response to an excellent question from Rep. Steve Wood, Chandler said that there is currently $3 million in the carrying account. That was a big surprise! I don’t believe the carrying account has ever been that large.
An outstanding professional, Judy Camuso presented a brief but informative report on the Wildlife Division, telling the committee that two huge projects are underway this year. The first, 2/3 completed, will create a new management plans for nongame animals. Getting underway soon will be a project to create new management plans for game animals including bear, moose, and deer.
Judy said that public working groups will be organized to assist with this task, and “listening sessions” will be held across the state to hear from sportsmen and other members of the public. She also expects to conduct some surveys to gather additional information from the public.
Rep. Steve Wood and Senator Paul Davis praised Camuso for her work on the bear referendum.
Mike Brown outlined the various projects and duties of the Fisheries Division. He reported that 1.3 million fish were produced in the agency’s 8 hatcheries last year, totaling a little over 400,000 pounds. That is a substantial increase over the last ten years, but far short of what was recommended in 2002 by a specially-organized Hatchery Commission.
The Commissin recommended that hatchery production be increased to 865,077 pounds, including 700,609 pounds of brook trout, 16,457 pounds of landlocked salmon 60125 pounds of rainbow trout 77,622 pounds of brown trout, and 4.664 pounds of lake trout. The Commission also recommended that splake production be reduced to 5,600 pounds. I’ll have a more detailed report on the agency’s hatchery program and the Commission’s recommendation sometime soon. And I have a bill in that would recreate the Hatchery Commission to review DIF&W’s hatchery program.
Mike reported that they are testing new strains of brown trout. He also said fisheries biologists spend a lot of time identifying and tracking illegal introductions of nonnative fish throughout the state.
Rep. Steve Wood asked why fish are stocked in October that are not legal sized to keep by ice anglers. Mike responded that one main reason is the locations may be good waters for growth of the stocked fish. Fish are sometimes stocked in the fall to be available for spring open water anglers.
Wilkinson and Cloutier
Colonel Wilkinson said wardens have about 135,000 contacts in the field each year, and emphasized that the search and rescue function is covered by General Fund tax money. The way that happens is convoluted, and I’ll write about it after I get (if I get) the agency’s annual finance report.
Joel also reported that we have 125 full time game wardens and 6 deputy part-time positions. On any given day 30 to 35 wardens are on duty.
Warden Service Major Chris Cloutier told his interesting personal story of how he became a warden, and briefed the committee on other aspects of a game warden’s job.
Senator Dave Dutremble, a firefighter, praised the warden service for its assistance to firefighters over the years.
Bill Swan reported that his agency sold 480,000 licenses and permits last year. He also briefed the committee on the MOSES online system. Use of the system has grown over the years, now representing 37 percent of all license and permit sales. 450 agents throughout the state sell licenses and permits, using the MOSES system.
As soon as the sale is made, DIF&W has that information. That’s certainly better than the archaic game tagging system. Months after the end of the seasons on turkeys, bears, moose, and deer, we still don’t know how many were harvested. But we know how many purchased licenses and permits to hunt those animals!
Over the years I have found Bill Swan to be a superb, professional, and responsive manager of this important function. This session I have, for the second time, submitted legislation to create a comprehensive license, something Bill suggested to SAM’s Pickering Commission four years ago.
Snowmobile registrations so far this year are roughly equal to last year, a good snow year. But we have seen a definite downtrend in snowmobile registrations, declining from over 100,000 to 80,000. ATV registrations are holding flat at 65,000 for the last four or five years.
Married to a retired game warden, and a fishing guide for 28 years, Bonnie Holding has been at the agency for about 6 months. She is reorganizing the Information and Education Division (a story for a late date).
Rick’s engineering division has four people, including himself, and is responsible for planning, design, construction, maintenance and repairs of 7 regional offices, 8 fish culture stations, 62 wildlife management areas, over 250 seabird nesting islands, 224 structures, the Maine Wildlife Park, 77 dams, 113 fishways and 123 boat access sites. Impressive!
Commissioner Woodcock finished up the afternoon’s presentations by emphasizing, “We are a very small agency with a very big responsibility.” Indeed.