Hunting seasons for moose, caribou, bear and sheep are open or will open soon, and Alaska’s 1,570 licensed big game hunting guides and transporters will get busy.
The season also brings a change from the state group that regulates their profession, the Big Game Commercial Services Board. The administrative cost of licensing, disciplining and creating regulations for professional hunting guides is greater than the income generated by licensing fees, and the board has operated since 2010 at a deficit which this year reached approximately $1.4 million. The parent agency of the financially strained board — the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development’s Division of Corporations, Business and Professional Licensing (CPBL) — has tried to make up the difference with increased licensing fees that have proven unpopular with hunting guides and game transporters.
A new fee created last year charged guides $50 for each of the reports they’re required to submit after their hunts. This year, the board will change that $50-per-report fee to a one-time annual fee of $300.
Michael Spisak, owner of Soldotna-based Ram Aviation, flies hunting clients to a camp in Koetzebue. He’s also one of the transporters who carry game meat back to civilization from the remote areas where it’s harvested, by boat or plane.
Transporters are covered under the same professional license as big game guides and pay the same reporting fee. Although the price is the same for them, transporters end up submitting more reports annually, resulting in a greater expense, Spisak said.
Game-meat transporters serve several hunters and may perform more transports each year — requiring more report filings — than a hunting guide’s annual kills. The $50-per-report fee was especially hard on them, Spisak said. Changing the per-report fee to a $300 annual fee relieves some of their expenses. Under the per-report fee, a transporter would only have to file six reports in a year in order to spend $300. Spisak said the number of transports he does each year is closer to 60. He acknowledged the change would be a significant cost saver for him.
“But zero dollars would be a significant cost-saver, too,” he said.
Spisak opposes filing fees in general and said all other hunting guides and transporters he knows also oppose it. Other guides contacted for this story did not return calls as of press time.
Alaska statutes require professional licensing groups to set fees “so that the total amount of fees collected for an occupation approximately equals the actual regulatory costs for the occupation.” For the hunting guide licensing program, this has not been the case since at least 2010, according to its online FAQ.
A legislative audit from 2016 shows the group was working at a $610,000 deficit in 2012. That year, CBPL attempted to reduce this number by increasing license fees from $450 to $725 for guides and from $250 to $420 for assistant guides.
“However, based on public comment, the CBPL withdrew the proposed licensing fee increase and no increases were implemented,” the legislative audit states.
In this budget year, the Big Game Commercial Services Board’s deficit stands at just more than $1 million.
A letter from Commerce, Community and Economic Development Director Janey Hovenden states that with the proposed fee changes the board expects to be out of its deficit by 2019, at which point “a fee analysis conducted at that time may determine that a fee reduction is fiscally warranted.”
The Big Game Commercial Services Board’s ten members are appointed by the governor and consist of two guides, two transporters, two land-owners, two members of the general public and a member of the Alaska Board of Game. Its staff are employees of the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. Statute requires it to meet twice yearly.
The legislation that created the Big Game Commercial Services Board was set to sunset this year, but was renewed by the state Legislature for three years in a bill that also requires it to draft a plan for financial solvency before October.
Spisak said he was most galled by the fact that the fee didn’t provide any apparent service to the guides who paid it.
“If we got something out of it, that would be different,” Spisak said of the fees. “If they said, ‘We would dedicate the money to a search and rescue,’ that would be something. If they said, ‘We were going to base a helicopter in the mountains,’ that would be something. But they give us nothing, no kind of service.”
Comments will be open on the proposed fees until Sept. 7.
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.