I hear it more and more: "Why isn't there more small game on public land?" or "Why isn't the State doing more to manage and sustain wildlife habitat on its lands?" Simply put, the reason is money ... or rather, not enough, according to State officials. And the forecast for the future isn't all that promising that things will change.
The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation has more divisions and subdivisions than Ken Lay had excuses for what happened to Enron. Considering the floundering economic climate that exists in the state, particularly after the 9/11 attack, the State, including DEC, has been operating on very shaky budgets, compared to the income it once enjoyed. Lagging budgets, attrition and changing priorities have hurt just about all State agencies, but particularly so in those responsible for fish, wildlife and habitat, much of that dependant on the NYS Conservation Fund.
The Conservation Fund represents 55-60 percent of the annual operating budget of the Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources, and 40-50 percent of the budget of the DEC Division of Law Enforcement as well. The Fund gets most of its revenue (90 percent) from sales of hunting, fishing and trapping licenses, fees and special taxes. As such, it's historically been the sportsmen and women's money and special taxes that drove these programs. However, expanding overhead operating costs of these agencies – especially salaries, benefits and increasing retirements – are gutting their ability to perform effectively. Also, drops in license sales, as sportsmen as a group age and quit hunting, and fewer younger people participate, have had an impact. Despite a recent license increase, these deficits have continued to grow. The introduction of a special voluntary $5 Habitat Stamp was poorly promoted by the DEC and, as such, has proven to be a total flop. In recent years, the legislature has been – for lack of a better term – subsidizing the divisions' budgets with monies from the General Fund, attempting to keep them at some semblance of effectiveness. This subsidy isn't a gift since every person, hunter, angler or not, benefits from a healthy environment, habitat and the creatures that live there. But elected officials also must look at the "big picture" ... which translates to votes. As hunters' numbers drift downward, that lowers wildlife and habitat's priority in the political scheme.