The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation is again seeking a major overhaul to hunting and fishing license fees. The agency wants to control the fee-setting structures itself, rather than going through the legislature.
With the bill-filing deadline for the second session of the 58th Oklahoma Legislature coming up next week, the department’s governing board, the Wildlife Conservation Commission, voted to issue a supporting statement.
The department would use its public regulatory process to change license fees just like other hunting and fishing regulations. Those changes go through a 30-day public comment period, Commission approval, Legislative Rules approval, and signature by the governor. The legislative bill process is the only way to change fees currently.
The Wildlife Department gets no state tax money. Sales of hunting and fishing licenses, federal excise tax disbursements, as well as some donations other programs fund the department.
Gaining legislative approval for price changes proves more and more cumbersome as technology, outdoor recreation, and the economy are ever-changing, department officials have argued. Some license fees have not changed for more than 15 years.
“We have requested two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, and they will be very similar to what we first proposed last year,” said Cory Jager, Wildlife Department legislative liaison.
The licensing request has faced a hard road. COVID-19 delays hit the bill in 2020. Compromise measures tied to the bill sunk it in 2021.
The Department is making the licensing request its priority this session and will be reaching out to legislators with detailed information and seeking more outside support for the measure, Jager said.
The department is requesting the bills through Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston and Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, who chair the House and Senate appropriations committees, she said.
The position statement passed the eight-member Commission on a 6-0 vote. District 3 Commissioner Bill Brewster and District 6 Commissioner John P. Zelbst were absent. It focuses on three key actions:
1. Allow the Commission to use the legislature’s administrative rules process and its own public participation process to “develop a hunting and fishing license structure and associated fees that is more responsive to customer needs, current economic markets, inflation, and conservation needs.”
2. Allow the Wildlife Department and Commission to routinely review licenses, permits and tags to “ensure they are streamlined, simple to understand and that they remove barriers to hunter and angler participation.”
3. Confirm the Commission’s Constitutional duties and ensure all license revenue “shall be expended and used by the Commission for the control, management, restoration, conservation and regulation of fish and wildlife.”
Flexibility vs oversight
The program would gain flexibility to create licensing options, and to make changes, she said.
“It would give us the ability to evaluate something for a year and change it if need be. To make a change now it may take up to two years to enact it,” she said. “By the time the change is actually made it might already be out-of-date.”
Commissioner Brewster, out for treatment of Lymphoma, plans to return soon but has a unique view of the situation among the commissioners as a former legislator and congressman.
Any time an agency asks elected representatives to turn over duties to non-elected boards and commissions it’s is a big ask, he said.
He was on the House Appropriations Committee when the state’s universities gained more control over tuition, he said.
“They made a good argument,” he said. “But look what has happened to tuitions since then. They’ve gone up exponentially.”
Legislators remembered that situation when considering the hunting and fishing license bills last spring, he said.
“From a flexibility standpoint it’s something that would probably be good,” he said. “From an oversight standpoint, that’s where the questions come in.”
The Department and Commission also provided some bullet points on immediate priorities for licensing changes should the bill pass.
Transitioning to licenses that are valid for 365 days from the purchase date and eliminating calendar-year and fiscal-year licenses.
Creating one inexpensive youth hunting license that covers all requirements for children younger than 18, or otherwise provides exemptions for species that will not require a license.
Transitioning to season-based deer licenses that provide the whole bag limit for each season under one license and eliminating the license-per-deer concept currently in use.
Consolidating all “fishing trip” licenses to one-day licenses.
Creating nonresident pricing for the state waterfowl stamp, turkey license, and conservation passport.
Kelly Bostian is an independent writer working for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans.