CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The shoe has dropped. West Virginia wildlife officials now know how the recent federal budget sequestration is going to affect them - and you.It's not pretty if you're a trout fisherman.Division of Natural Resources administrators said the upcoming 5.1 percent cut in federal Sport Fish Restoration funding will give the DNR $186,000 less each year to spend on fish management. Curtis Taylor, the agency's wildlife chief, said the state's trout-stocking program will probably take the worst hit."It won't affect [stockings] this year, but in the future we're talking about stocking fewer trout, smaller trout, and cutting streams that currently receive weekly stockings to one stocking every two weeks."
The trout program is so vulnerable because nearly three-fourths of its $2.6 million annual budget comes from federal Sport Fish Restoration money. Sportsmen who buy fishing tackle pay an 11 percent federal excise tax, which in turn gets returned to state fish agencies based on the amount of fishable water and the number of fishing license buyers in each state.West Virginia's small population and lack of water make it a "minimum state," one that receives the minimum cut of Sport Fish funding. DNR officials spend $1.8 million of that annual allocation on the trout program.Why so much? Trout stocking is expensive."During our last fiscal year, we spent $478,000 on trout food and $211,000 on vehicle expenses," Taylor said.Personnel costs usually eat up most of any agency's budget, but Taylor said the trout program is a notable exception."Most of the money associated with the trout program is in raising and stocking fish," he explained. "To reduce staff wouldn't be smart."Instead, DNR officials hope to cut costs by raising fewer fish. It currently costs about $1 to raise a trout from an egg to catchable size. Further money could be saved by cutting back on feedings, which would result in smaller trout.That would remove at least one source of pride from the state's hatchery workers, because on average West Virginia stocks the largest trout of any eastern state.Cutting back on the number of stockings would create even bigger savings. Taylor said the state's stocking list includes 33 streams that receive weekly stockings from March through the end of May."If we move all of those to a biweekly schedule, it would save 264 stocking runs," he added. "With gas at $4 a gallon, that's a considerable saving."The worst thing about the trout-program cuts is that they probably won't be a one-year thing. The sequester could last as long as 10 years, and even at the end of that time there's no guarantee Congress will let the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service release the money to the states.
Wildlife funding got cut, too, but because excise-tax receipts from guns and ammo have been running far above average the past two years, the cuts are offset by the higher receipts.The bottom line is that Congress is doing something it has no legal authority to do - to divert money from the Sport Fish Restoration and Wildlife Restoration funds. Those monies belong to sportsmen. They paid the taxes with the promise they'd get the money back.And now, here in West Virginia, we who bought fishing rods and reels and lures and lines will not get our full share of what we paid into that system.