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Georgia eyes 40% hike in non-resident hunting licenses

Florida hunters who travel to Georgia each year to hunt could be paying a lot more next season under a bill pending in the Georgia legislature. Meanwhile, Georgia hunters will actually be saving some cash under the proposed bill.

Under House Bill 326, submitted by Rep. Bob Lane (R-Statesboro), the current $75 non-resident hunting license will be increased to a $100 non-resident hunting/fishing (combined) license.

The current $135 non-resident “big-game license” would also increase to $195. This means a Florida deer hunter would see his/her license costs increase from $210 to $295 per year to hunt in Georgia.

The bill also proposes several other non-resident license fee increases, including: raising the three-day big-game license (from $50 to $90); raising the alligator license (from $50 to $200); increasing the fishing license (from $24 to $45); raising the trout license (from $13 to $20) and creating a three-day trout license for $10.

Meanwhile, if the bill passes, Georgia residents will get a slight break on license fees with the elimination of the $8 primitive weapons license and the reduction of the cost of the annual sportsman’s license from $60 to $55.

The bill was overwhelmingly passed (by a vote of 164-2) by the House and is under consideration in the Senate. According to Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division (WRD), Georgia leads the nation in hosting between 25,000 to 30,000 non-resident hunters each year. Georgia WRD Assistant Director Todd Holbrook has stated that Georgia is simply bringing its non-resident licenses up to a level that reflects the opportunities the state provides, pointing out that it has been “a long time” since non-resident fees were increased and that Georgia’s quality buck rule has made it an excellent deer hunting destination.

Georgia’s current rules allow hunters to take up to 12 deer per season, 10 of which may be does. Hunters may take two bucks, but one must have at least 4 points, one inch or longer, on one side of the antlers.

If license sales remain at the same level as past years Georgia would see a $2.3 million annual increase in revenue (from $18.3 million to $20.6 million). Many senior Florida hunters are still reeling from the cancellation of a long-standing exemption both states gave to hunters and freshwater anglers from the neighboring state. Since 1981, Florida and Georgia have had a reciprocal agreement exempting seniors from the other state from hunting and freshwater fishing license fees.

However, that agreement was discontinued effective July 1, 2008, meaning residents age 65 and older from both Florida and Georgia must now purchase non-resident licenses prior to hunting and/or fishing in the other state.

Georgia officials wanted to restructure the agreement last year, pointing out three times as many Florida seniors hunt or fish in Georgia as Georgia seniors taking advantage of the agreement – resulting in the loss of revenue being 10 times higher for Georgia than Florida. Georgia estimated that the value of the agreement to Florida’s citizens exceeded $500,000 annually, while the value to Georgians was only $50,000.

Georgia estimated 2,454 Florida seniors deer hunt in Georgia (plus 128 small game hunters) resulting in $524,949 in hunting license exemptions. The reason for the large discrepancy is an overwhelming imbalance of hunters from Florida who hunt deer in Georgia and the fact Florida’s population has a larger percentage of senior residents.

Georgia did propose keeping the agreement in place if Florida would add saltwater fishing licenses in Florida to the agreement for Georgia seniors. However, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) rejected the idea, stating Florida would lose about $193,000 in annual saltwater fishing license revenues.

FWC staff examined 2006-07 license sales and determined that 7.2% of non-resident saltwater fishing licenses sold to Georgians were to seniors. In March 2008, Georgia offered another reciprocal agreement that included only freshwater fishing privileges (no hunting). The FWC also rejected that proposed change. According to the FWC, nearly 900 seniors from Georgia took advantage of the agreement to freshwater fish in Florida – meaning Florida waived about $36,000 in annual license fees and federal aid.

The FWC also said nearly 1,500 seniors from Florida took advantage of the agreement to fish in Georgia (totaling about $23,000 in annual license fees and federal aid). Georgia then announced in early 2008 it would cancel the agreement because “economic realities” rendered it no longer feasible for hunting.

Georgia’s DNR determined the agreement “no longer provided adequate benefit” for their state. The FWC followed suit on April 9, 2008. The agreement never exempted seniors from either state from saltwater fishing license requirements, and Florida seniors have always been required to buy Georgia’s $13 trout stamp.

Florida’s resident senior citizens may continue to hunt and fish in Florida without purchasing a Florida license, although the FWC encourages seniors to do so to support conservation.

This does not affect a separate agreement that allows all freshwater anglers, regardless of age, to fish with either a Florida or Georgia license in such border waters as Lake Seminole and the St. Mary’s River.

Florida’s non-resident fishing license fees were just increased effective Oct. 1, 2008 for the first time since 1989 (first time ever for saltwater licenses). Although significantly higher than Georgia fees, the FWC points out that Florida’s licenses were still at or below the national average.

The national trend has been to eliminate exemptions and reciprocal agreements because the amount of federal aid in Sport Fish Restoration funds each state receives is appropriated each year based in part on the number of “paid” fishing license holders.

Each new paid license holder generates about an additional $7 for the FWC – over and above the actual license fee – in federal funds taken from excise taxes on tackle, motorboat fuel and other fishing-related sales. The funds help states pay for sportfish restoration, boating access and other related efforts.