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Hunting, fishing fee increases in Colorado pass first test with strong support of sportsmen groups

April 18, 2017 Updated: April 18, 2017 at 7:32 am
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Jim Bonham of Aurora takes aim at a pheasant as his black lab Kate makes pursuit in this Gazette file photo.

This is rare. Sportsmen's groups lined up to tell a House committee they're willing to pay up, if it means keeping Colorado's lands, water and wildlife good for hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation.

"Colorado bowhunters are willing to pay more," Tom Behunin of the Colorado Bowhunters Association, told the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee Monday. "... It's very important we keep Colorado Park and Wildlife afloat."

House Bill 1321 would raise all sorts of fees to help out a struggling Division of Parks and Wildlife, a state agency that depends almost entirely on the money it raises from people who hunt, fish, pay park fees or take a class.

The bill passed on an 8-5 vote at the start of a long process it must complete in a little over three weeks, before the legislative session ends on May 10.

The increases include an eventual 50 percent hike in the cost of fishing licenses, and do away with youth fishing program and eliminate free fishing for senior citizens, among its other increases and cuts.

About two dozen outdoors groups and most of the state's major water providers spoke in favor of the bill. There was no formal opposition, but several legislators said they've heard from lots of constituents who think hunters and anglers are being asked to carry too heavy a burden, when so many others enjoy the benefits.

"How many state entities have a users base willing to increase their own expenditures to maintain current levels of service?" said Dan Schwartz, an outfitter from Meeker.

"We've agreed to increase our cost without the promise of a bright, new, shiny object, what is that? It's because we believe in conservation."

Besides keeping hunting and fishing areas open and wildlife populations well-managed, the hike it costs would allow the Parks and Wildlife to continue an aggressive fight against aquatic nuisance species that a reeking havoc in other states' ecosystems.

Fees haven't gone up since 2005, while the cost of everything needed in the process - with growing public demand - has gone up, supporters of the bill said.

Dick Ray of the Colorado Outfitters Association said he lives in Pagosa Springs, 23 miles from the New Mexico state line.

"An elk can be hunted for $40 or $50 in Colorado, but when that same elk crosses the state line in New Mexico, a state with lower per capita income, a resident hunting down there will pay $106," he told the committee. "It's been that way for eight years. Why is that? I suspect it's because the New Mexico resident has been told that's what it takes to get responsible and adequate wildlife management, and they're willing to belly up to the bar and pay the price."

Lawmakers, though, struggled with the decision, even those who voted for it, because it raises a barrier of cost to hunting, fishing and visiting a state park for some people, when they're counting every penny.

Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, said the increases are a big deal in her community, including at her town hall meeting Friday night. The facts are, however, that state Parks and Wildlife is going to have make deep cuts without money from somewhere.

"Nobody wants to increase fees, nobody wants to pay increased fees," she said. "Nobody is going to be happy about their fees increasing, but the fact of the matter is we have to do something."

She added, "Am I going to have to go back to some of my constituents and explain why I voted yes on this bill? Absolutely I'm going to, but I'm willing to do that because I need to make sure those parks are going to be there for future generations to enjoy."

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