A DROP in hunting license sales the past 18 years has lowered conservation funding, leading to staff cuts and reduced management activities, a new report shows.

According to the Wisconsin Policy Forum, total deer license sales dropped 5.8% between 1999 and 2017. It is one of the biggest reasons why the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has had annual funding gaps in the Fish and Wildlife Account of up to $6 million in recent years.

There was some good news on the fishing side of the equation, where license sales grew by 3.6% over the same period. But that wasn’t enough to offset declining revenues, which are also impacted by federal excise taxes on fire­arms, ammunition and fishing gear.

During the same 18-year period, the full-time DNR staff paid out of the Fish and Wildlife Account dropped by 144 positions, or 20.8%, down to 549 jobs.

In January 2017, the DNR said it had cut spending by a total of $20 million over the previous five years to help balance the budget, leading to reduced habitat management, warden patrols, invasive species control and other activities.

As a state with an enormous legacy in conservation, stretching back to the days of Aldo Leopold and John Muir, it’s troubling that we would put all we’ve worked for at risk over these funding shortfalls.

What we charge in Wisconsin for license fees hasn’t kept pace with inflation. Overall, state hunting and fishing license revenue dropped from $69.6 million in 2006 to $65.5 million in fiscal 2015.

“For context, the 2006 license revenues would have been worth $81.8 million in 2015 if they had kept up with inflation,” Wisconsin Policy Forum noted.

Wisconsin has a rich outdoors tradition, with state residents hunting at two and a half times the national rate and fishing at twice the national rate, according to reports from the DNR and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“In addition, Wisconsin is second only to South Dakota in the number of out-of-state hunters and third in the nation for out-of-state anglers, behind only Florida and Michigan,” they said.

License sales revenue helps the DNR manage 600 public properties totaling more than 680,000 acres, stock fish, pay wardens, conduct research and cover wildlife damage to crops.

The money helps pay for managing and protecting wildlife such as wolves as well as current or formerly endangered species that are not hunted, including the Karner blue butterfly, trumpeter swans, pine martens, ospreys and bald eagles.

The decline in hunting has been attributed to factors ranging from an increasingly urbanized and racially diverse population to the rise of electronics, the shrinking pool of adult teachers for youth, and a lack of access to hunting land.

Wisconsin Policy Reform states that hunting is traditionally a sport of rural white males. They say the current trend is that hunters who do buy licenses are spending fewer days in the field and are growing older.

One obvious solution to the funding shortfall is increasing license fees so that they better match inflation. Along those lines, the DNR could reduce or rescind discounts for first-time or senior license purchasers and expand learn-to-hunt programs.

The scribbler has advocated many times in this space that higher license fees would be preferred over a depleted conservation workforce, decreased enforcement and less habitat management work.

I’ve been wrong before, but it appears hunters and anglers are willing to spend big bucks on everything except the very license fees we need to continue our conservation legacy.

Just look at the vehicles, boats, sleds, shelters, electronics, motorized equipment, guns, rods, clothing and general gear purchased by sportsmen and -women today. Then tell me we can’t afford a few more bucks for license fees.

It appears the DNR has already done its part, cutting out 20% of the Fish and Wildlife Account workforce. It’s so bad that we’ve got conservation wardens being pulled from their territories to perform state park duties because park rangers were all reassigned.

That also included elimination of a research department that accounted for much of the scientific knowledge that went into management decisions — which should be a red flag on how far they had to go to help balance a budget without increased license fees.

One report on the minds of state politicians is a 2006 Legislative Audit Bureau report that found Wisconsin was among the top 10 states for the heaviest reliance on hunters and anglers for funding conservation.

Maybe the challenge is getting other outdoor enthusiasts to share the burden, such as reaching out to hikers, canoers or birdwatchers who enjoy our natural resources but traditionally have not been asked to directly help fund state wildlife programs.

There has been talk of requiring a fee for non-motorized watercraft such as canoes, kayaks and paddleboards, or funding conservation in part by using a portion of sales tax or lottery revenues, as Minnesota does.

I don’t have all the answers and neither does the Wisconsin Policy Forum, but it’s time we start finding solutions before any more damage is done.

We can’t keep our conservation legacy alive if we aren’t willing to make it a major priority — and to pay the price.

If we continue to shortchange the managers entrusted to protect our natural resources, we’ll soon find that our resources are being squandered.

We owe it to future generations to devise a sustainable funding system for conservation, even when participant numbers decline.