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Gattis responds: Sinnott's sheepish argument against big-game hunting permit changes

Lynn Gattis
y entonces / cc via flickr

I offer these comments in response to an opinion that appeared in this publication on March 7th, 2014: “Bill to sell Alaska wildlife to the highest bidder gains momentum.” House Bill 161 updates the “Governor’s License” program. This is an economic process for the Department of Fish and Game to generate funds in order to manage the state’s wildlife resource. The department may select a nonprofit organization that promotes education in outdoor traditions and that conducts conservation and wildlife protection programs to conduct big game permit auctions or raffles. The sale of relatively few permits can generate a large amount of money. If the department’s conservation and protection efforts are not funded by programs like this one they either a) ask the Legislature for more funds (your taxes) or b) shut down the hunt and not manage the area.

The author of the article was correct that this program was created in 1997 and since 2009 has generated over $450,000. We agree on this point but I’d invite the author to revisit the House Resources Committee Substitute for HB 161 (CSHB 161(RES)) to clarify a few things.

To begin there are actually up to 42 permits under HB 161; statute currently has up to 19 permits. It may seem that effectively doubling the permits would be a huge hit to hunters in Alaska, but consider that the department is issuing around 4,000 permits for big game species for 2014-2015. It should be mentioned that the bill issues “up to” 42 permits, there is no requirement that all the permits be distributed by the department. Historically around half the available permits are issued, and of that half, 46 percent are actually utilized in a hunt. This means that around 25 percent of the total permits issued were used.

Resident/non-resident hunters

The author made some noise about this bill taking animals away from resident hunters, so let’s talk about how hunting permits are issued in the state of Alaska. Hunters can apply for a big game permit and enter into the drawing pool. What the author failed to mention is that many draw hunts are open to all hunters, both resident and non-resident. HB 161 does take permits out of the drawing pool; it does not take permits directly from Alaskan hunters. When a resident hunter enters into the drawing, he has the same chance of winning a permit as a hunter from New York or Texas. If a permit is donated to a nonprofit under this program, and the permit does not sell, it is reentered into the drawing pool or, if late in the season, sold over-the-counter. These sales are almost exclusively to resident hunters.

Permit Count

The bill has two sections that list permits available for donation for raffle or auction just like current statute does. Section 1 gives 100 percent of the proceeds to a nonprofit under the stipulation that they use the generated funds to “promote education in outdoor traditions and conservation and wildlife protection programs in partnership with the department.” This language is a change from the “fish and game enforcement” language that is in statute. We made this change at the request of the department because the organization that was established to promote enforcement, the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Safeguard, is no longer active and there wasn’t anyone to award the permit to. Now an organization can use the funds for a number of activities, for example hunter education and youth or women’s shooting classes. Current statute already has permits for 1 bison and 4 Etolin Island elk; we expanded the permit count in this section by one Dall sheep.

Section 2 of the bill has permits for 2 Dall sheep and, to correct the author, 2 Bison. These 4 permits are already in statute; they are also the most sought-after and controversial permits. HB 161 increases the 2 permits in statute to 4 permits for musk ox, brown or grizzly bear, moose, caribou and wolf; and adds 4 permits each for black bear, goat and elk. Section 2 of HB 161 increases the percentage a nonprofit can keep from 10 percent to 30 percent. I feel that this is necessary because too few groups are participating in the Governor’s License program. Yes, the sheep and bison permits usually sell but aside from these two species there are relatively few bidders. I’d like to see that change and I think incentivizing the groups with a greater share of the proceeds is a good way to do that. The entirety of the money that goes to the nonprofit has to be spent on outdoor education and conservation projects in a manner approved by the department. It should be noted that, although the department’s piece of the pie is reduced, the increase in permit sales should lead to an actual increase in department revenue.

The sheep permits are usually big ticket items and have been generating a lot of publicity. The author was correct in noting that the first sheep permit sold under the Governor’s License program sold for $200,000 and that the permits regularly sell for six-digit figures. The program already has 2 sheep permits in it. I’ve added one more for a total of 3; which the department agrees should maximize profits. Opponents have argued that valuable sheep hunts are being taken away from Alaskan hunters; I would point out how few hunts, relatively, are included in this bill and how much benefit the department derives from the sale of these permits. The department issued 443 Dall sheep permits for this fall’s hunting season. Three permits out of the 443 available for the draw hunt are .7 percent of the allotted sheep take that this bill would “reserve.”

More money for politicians and lobbyists

The author pointed out that Section 2 of this bill removes language asserting that an organization may not use the money to make contributions for political reasons; this is correct. However, the language replacing the removed stipulation reads: “proceeds may be used only to support outdoor tradition education projects and conservation and wildlife protection programs approved by the department.” The language in statute was broad and allowed an organization to use the proceeds for basically anything so long as it was not for political contributions/lobbying; they could have used it to cover their own administrative costs. HB 161 increases safeguards and is very specific about how proceeds can only be used to fund education and conservation programs to directly benefit Alaskan hunters. When this bill was heard in the House Resources Committee, Rep. Feige (R-Chickaloon) raised the same concern and it is on record that the purpose of this change is to ensure that proceeds are not used for political gain.

The author stated that it would be up to the department to tell qualified organizations that the money cannot be used for political purposes. I will counter that point with the fact that, if HB 161 is signed into law, the language becomes statute and is not open to interpretation by the department or any other entity. This change is necessary to ensure that funds are directed toward programs that have a direct benefit to hunters in the state and aren’t diverted to other projects or administrative costs.

Out-of-state organizations

The author incorrectly points out that HB161 repeals the provision that the organization must be based in the state. Section 3(e) of the bill clearly states that the organization must be incorporated in the state as a nonprofit corporation.

My office has worked closely with the department as well as a large number of sporting groups to create this bill to benefit hunters and ensure that the department has continued funding to manage this valuable resource well into the future. Please contact my office if you have any questions.

 Rep. Lynn Gattis serves the greater Wasilla area, District 9, in the Alaska House of Representatives.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.