Fee causes drop in tag renewals

Higher fees have caused Georgians to dump their special wildlife license tags in record numbers, but the financial impact to conservation programs is still a question mark.

As we reported in our news sections last week, owners of bald eagle, quail and hummingbird tags are being hit with an annual "tag renewal fee" of $35, under a new law that took effect last May.

Previously, the only cost associated with such tags was the initial $25 purchase fee, of which a large portion went to programs such as the state's Bobwhite Quail Initiative or the Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund.

Rick Lavender, a spokesman for the Wildlife Resources Division's nongame section that administers that fund, said an analysis of data from the first four months of the new fee program has both positive and negative repercussions.

"The change officially occurred May 26 of last year," he said. "For our analysis, we took August to November -- four months -- and looked both at new tag issuances and renewals, and compared the numbers with the same period in 2009."

The issuance of new plates declined drastically, with 71.1 percent fewer tags sold in that four-month period, he said.

The estimates also showed renewals fell off as well, with only 60.5 percent of the expiring tags renewed.

What does that mean in terms of actual dollars earmarked for wildlife?

"Our projections from fee changes ranged from $3.4 million if everyone renewed to $868,500 if just 25 percent renewed," he said. "But if you take what we've seen these first four months, we're looking at $2.1 million in revenue for this fiscal year."

That sum, he noted, is actually above the annual average of $1.91 million generated by the license program -- based on average annual revenues from 2004 to 2010.

"So at this point the projected revenue for fiscal 2011, just for renewals, is 9.8 percent higher than the average annual revenue 2004 to 2010 cycle," Lavender said. "But what we don't know, and we haven't been able to project, is whether the declines in renewals will increase or stabilize."

Officials hope Georgians who have bought 350,000 wildlife plates in recent years will be willing to pay the annual fee to keep them.

"We are grateful for people who have either bought wildlife plates, or who have decided to renew," he said. "This is critical to our programs."

SPEAKING OF BUDGETS: I talked last week with Todd Holbrook, deputy commissioner of Georgia's Department of Natural Resources, who mentioned the spectre of closing some of the state's 98 wildlife management areas.

"The budget we're looking at is fiscal year 2010 that starts July 1," he said. "The line item is reducing state funds for leased wildlife management areas by $210,000."

That computes to the potential loss of up to 25,000 acres of publicly accessible lands.

The areas affected have not been identified, but Holbrook said they would be mainly private parcels under lease agreements -- and not the state and federal lands that also comprise a large portion of the state's WMA program.

In the Augusta area, most of the popular areas would not be affected, including Corps of Engineers land on Thurmond Lake, Yuchi and Tuckahoe WMAs and Di-Lane Plantation.

YUCHI FISHING: Almost two decades ago, plans were made to carve a 110-acre fishing lake from the swampy wilderness on the low-lying portion of Yuchi Wildlife Management Area in Burke County.

The plan included docks, trails, parking areas and maintenance workers who would help manage the site. Surveyors marked the boundaries and timber was cut to accommodate the rising waters once the dam was built and sealed.

But it never happened. The $2.1 million needed to finish the project was included in perennial funding requests over the years, but it never got to the construction phase.

This year, Holbrook acknowledged, the project is off the table completely, as Georgia's cash-strapped government grapples with funding shortfalls.

"It was never funded at a level we could move forward with," he said. "And even though some of the preliminary work was done, half a dam does not hold half a lake."

In the years that have elapsed since timber was cut for the project, trees have long since regenerated. Yuchi, with 7,800 state-owned acres, remains open and is one of the state's most popular WMAs.

TREE REEFS: The Army Corps of Engineers has finished moving hundreds of Christmas trees from Riverside Middle School to selected sites at Thurmond Lake, where they are available for anglers who want to build their own fish attractors.

"We picked up all the trees Wednesday at Riverside and distributed them to five locations for public use," said corps wildlife biologist Ken Boyd.

Those sites include Amity Day Use Area, the Elbert County ramps at Coody Creek and Mistletoe State Park on the Georgia side; the Dordan Creek and the U.S. Forest Service Long Cane Boat Ramp off U.S. Hwy. 28 in South Carolina.

Officials are also building four deep attractors on the Savannah River arm between Catfish Bay and Soap Creek, Boyd said.

FLY FISHERS MEET: The CSRA Fly Fishers will meet at 7 p.m. Monday at the River Island clubhouse in Evans. Topics include planning of spring trips, fly tying, rod building classes and casting clinics. Visitors are welcome. For more information, go to www.csraflyfishers.org.

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