SALT LAKE CITY — Unlike other Western states like Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho, Utah’s wildlife agency is not self-supporting, instead relying on general fund money from the state budget for its operations.
But raising fees for out-of-state sportsmen who hunt and fish in the Beehive State could lessen the reliance on tax dollars, a new legislative audit suggests.
The audit of the Utah Department of Natural Resources presented Wednesday to the Legislative Audit Subcommittee says the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources could capture more revenue if it increased fees for out-of-state hunters and anglers and also charged more for high-value hunting permits.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources received $7.9 million in general fund appropriations in 2018, but that funding could be reduced if Utah aligned its fees to more closely match those of other Western states. Fee adjustments, the audit pointed out, have the potential to generate an additional $6 million in revenue for the wildlife agency.
Nonresidents pay $75 for a fishing license in Utah. Residents pay $34 for the year-round license, while residents over 65 pay $25.
The audit said Colorado raised the cost of its nonresident fishing license from $55 to $95 in 2019, pointing out that Colorado’s total license cost — which is the lowest of the four states auditors reviewed — is 30% higher than that of Utah.
While acknowledging higher fees have the potential to deter visits by out-of-state anglers or hunters, the audit said the wildlife division should determine an appropriate fee increase that doesn’t chase away visitors.
Nathan Schwebach, spokesman with the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said of the $7.9 million allocated in general fund money in 2018, $6.7 million are for items that can’t be replaced from revenue derived from fishing and hunting.
“It would be inappropriate to spend hunter and angler funds on items not directly related to hunting and fishing,” he emphasized.
“With that said, although (the division) is more than 90% self-funded through fees, federal funds and contracts; the division is considering ways to become even more self-funded. Two areas being discussed are out-of-state hunting and fishing licenses, and the possibility of requiring nonresident boaters a fee to assist with the implementation of Utah’s aquatic invasive species program.”
He said those proposals would be reviewed by the division’s regional advisory councils and the State Wildlife Board. Any fee increase, he added, would require legislative review.
Capturing revenue from out-of-state boaters to offset costs of the invasive quagga mussel program was also strongly recommended in the audit, with it noting that seven other Western states charge a fee, while Utah does not. The state’s efforts to combat the invasive quagga mussel problem at Lake Powell is funded in part by a $10 fee paid by Utah boaters at registration time, but out-of-state boaters pay nothing.
“Nonresidents pose a significant risk for bringing aquatic invasive species to Utah; in 2018, more than 26,000 nonresident boats visited Utah lakes. At least seven other Western states charge an aquatic invasive species fee to both residents and nonresidents,” the audit said.
Earlier this year during the legislative session, the Utah Department of Natural Resources requested an additional $405,000 to pay for more equipment and personnel for operations at Lake Powell to fight the quagga problem even as the majority of nonresident boaters — 64% — were visiting the recreation hot spot and not financially contributing to the fight, the audit said.
Colorado, at the high end, charges $50 for its invasive species program, while Idaho charges $30 and Oregon charges $20, the audit found.
If Utah charged nonresident boaters a $30 fee for its invasive species program, it could generate nearly $800,000 while a $50 fee would raise more than $1.3 million.
The audit emphasized the effects of the quagga mussel problem at Lake Powell have the potential to be devastating since there is no clear method for their eradication.
The quagga infiltrate boats and cling to the bottom of the vessel or props and clog piping and other water infrastructure.
Last year, the audit said, inspectors stopped 120 mussel-infested boats from launching at other Utah lakes — most of those had visited Lake Powell.
The majority of the funding for Utah’s $2 million Aquatic Invasive Species program comes from the general fund, the audit noted, and the probability that funding will have to be increased is high likely given the risk of the species spreading to other lakes.
Auditors recommended that when nonresident boaters visit the state, they should be asked to help offset those costs.
The audit also recommended greater financial transparency, and more effective “results” tracking through the department’s Watershed Restoration Initiative, which leverages state funding to garner federal grants and other money to improve habitat throughout the state.
Auditors said the program should report its total annual resources, including partner funds, and detail all administrative costs, which totaled nearly $744,00 in fiscal year 2018.
Schwebach said the agency agrees with the auditors’ recommendations.
“We are immediately working to implement recommendations that will improve transparency, accountability and business practices. External reviews of our processes and business practices are helpful, and present themselves as opportunities to improve the efficiency of our programs and reduce costs,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported the price of Utah residential fishing licenses. Utah residents under age 65 pay $34 for a fishing license while those over 65 pay $25.