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Expect fishing fees to rise, bear count to fall
Candus Thomson -- On the Outdoors
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Originally published January 18, 2004






Fun has its price. In the case of recreational fishing, the grins and yuks are likely to cost 41 percent more next year.

On the other hand, good things happen to those who wait. After years of study and discussion, Maryland hunters will probably be able to take part in a limited bear hunt this fall for the first time in half a century.

Those were the bad news, good news highlights of a sit-down last week with Ron Franks and Pete Jensen, the top two guys at the Department of Natural Resources, on the eve of the legislative session.

The agency is asking lawmakers to approve an $8 increase in the price of the annual combination freshwater and tidal license, from $19.50 to $27.50. Only the $5 trout stamp would remain untouched.

Charter captains who take out six or fewer anglers would see license fees rise $10 to $250, and increase from $290 to $300 for parties of seven or more.

The bottom line, in this case, is the bottom line.

"We are trying to be realistic. We can't run a modern, science-based agency without the revenues to hire the people to do the research that we need," Franks said. "Our budget has been cut, in general funds, significantly. This year, we were asked to look at an 8 percent reduction."

What do anglers get for their money? For one thing, the agency last year stocked 5.2 million American and hickory shad, 913,000 yellow perch, 237,030 largemouth bass and 427,100 trout.

"We looked at it in terms of what's fair," Jensen said. "We've spent heavily on striped bass restoration, upgrading fish passages and dam removal."

No one would argue with Jensen's assessment, but anglers and hunters complain that they get stuck with the bill for DNR, while other folks who enjoy the state's natural resources appear to be sponging.

Take hunters. Their license fees are responsible for nearly all of the Wildlife and Heritage Service budget, yet everyone benefits from a stock of well-managed critters.

While it's true that certain fees have increased (a seasonal pass to Sandy Point State Park, for example, went up $15 this year from $60 to $75), others have not. Boating title fees and dealer fees haven't been raised since 1965, and the cost of a two-year boat registration hasn't increased since the mid-1970s. Last year, DNR issued 39,150 titles and 103,500 registrations and licensed 567 boat dealers.

Franks said he wouldn't disagree that sportsmen have a legitimate beef.

"We're looking very hard at other user fees, as well," he said. "We're looking at who is supporting this organization and who is not ... with an eye toward spreading the load more evenly."

The highly publicized deaths of two young hunters this past season will mostly likely trigger the filing of legislation to set a minimum age.

"I don't know whether there's traction for that or not," he said. "Maryland has a very extensive hunter safety program. Parents, by and large, are conscientious and don't want anything to happen to their children. And they will do what has to be done. ... I'm not sure you legislate that."

Jensen predicted that the "Freedom to Fish" bill will pass this year after failing to gain approval last year.

The bill sets requirements that DNR must meet before closing the bay or its tributaries to fishing for such reasons as protecting a habitat. It has been approved by several states and is being considered by others this year.

"The bill last year required the department to allow recreational fishing in an area that's closed. The commercial people said, 'Hey, what about us?' After a discussion, it all got ironed out. This bill treats everyone the same."

Franks confirmed that he is reviewing a proposal to combine Natural Resources Police and the State Parks rangers into one law enforcement agency.

"The Mandel Commission [on streamlining state government] and the Department of Budget Management have made suggestions that we look at consolidating. All of that is under consideration," he said.

Although it doesn't require legislative action, Franks said that a limited bear hunt could begin as early as this fall, "if everything goes well" and scientific research supports it. New Jersey and Georgia both had hunts this year for the first time in decades.

Of course, lawmakers could try to block a hunt legislatively, a move that failed last year. But DNR officials were heartened when New Jersey and Georgia successfully held bear seasons this year despite legal challenges.

"The pressure on the habitat for bears has increased because the bear population has increased. Bears are territorial. As the population increases, they don't allow another bear in their territory; they add onto their territory, even if it includes people," Franks said. "If you deal in reality, bears and people don't mix when they're in the same territory."

As a first step to having a hunt, the agency has posted the proposed management plan on its Web site (www.dnr.state.md.us) and opened a one-month comment period.

"We want to keep the bear population healthy, thriving and reproductive," he said. "We have to limit the bears because we're not going to limit the people. We don't have a choice in the matter, and the governor recognizes that."

One of Franks' first acts as secretary was to get recreational and commercial fishermen to work together to update the penalties targeting habitual poachers. Their recommendations were included in a bill for this session.

"My sense is it's going to pass because we have buy-in from all the user groups. It's fair to everybody and it's equitable," said Franks, who added that he would be willing to review hunting penalties, if the need is demonstrated.

When it comes to bay restoration, Franks said the administration is committed to the "big-time" planting of bay grasses to filter water and retard erosion. That means dealing with mute swans, an invasive species that has stripped vast swatches of the vegetation that shelters fish and crabs.

The federal government withdrew its approval of a plan to kill thousands of birds last year after animal rights activists went to court to block it. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, is looking into amending federal statutes to remove the nuisance bird from migratory bird status, clearing the way for eradication.

"I don't want to grow [grass] for the mute swans to eat. That doesn't seem reasonable to me," Franks said. "In order to have a balanced ecosystem in the Chesapeake Bay, the bird needs to be removed - it is an invasive species. It is a majestic elegant bird, but I think affection and feelings toward it has to be tempered with the reality of what it has done to the total bay ecosystem."



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I would gladly vollunteer my services as a "mute swan erradicator". Get'em outta the bay.
 
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