June 1, 2009

Reforming the California Department of Fish and Game?

When it comes to the management of California's fisheries and native aquatic fauna Tom Stienstra, the writer of the Outdoors column in the San Francisco Chronicle, and I rarely think alike. In his 5/31/09 column, Tom argues that the budget crisis currently enveloping California is an opportunity to reform the Department of Fish and Game (CDFG). Although I certainly agree that the CDFG is badly in need of a major overhaul, Tom's proposed solutions would not accomplish a thing. Tom says:

"In the new budget, the governor proposes to take $30 million out of dedicated funds as a 'loan' to the general fund, likely order an additional cut and tell Fish and Game to deal with it. This could devastate matching federal funds the department receives. There's a better way to conduct business. This is how you fix it: All habitat, conservation and nongame programs should be shifted to the Department of Conservation, which can better allocate priorities. This includes endangered species, non-game management, response to oil spills, toxics, timber review, oversight of pet stores, zoos, live-food animal markets and invasive species, few which Fish and Game does well..... This trimmed-down unit would be renamed the Department of Fishing and Hunting, and pay for itself with license fees, stamps and federal excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment. The governor could get his dream answered to cut all general fund money to the department. This new 'DFH' would exist to stock trout, improve fishing and create hunting programs, especially for wild hogs."

These proposed reforms make no sense. First, simply transferring a wide range of conservation-related duties from the CDFG to the Department of Conservation would produce no cost savings. With most of the tasks the CDFG is currently responsible for transferred to another agency, the CDFG may in fact be able to finance its slimmed-down operations using non-general fund dollars. However, the general fund dollars previously needed by the CDFG would now be needed by the Department of Conservation. This is a zero-sum game.

Second, the suggestion that all conservation-related CDFG programs be transferred to the Department of Conservation ignores the reality that several of these conservation-related programs exist primarily because of the impacts caused by programs focused specifically on fishing and hunting. For example, the CDFG is currently spending $1.8 million dollars to write an environmental document that discloses the impacts of its fish stocking program and proposes means by which these impacts could be mitigated. Why should the Department of Conservation be in charge of dealing with the messes that the CDFG fish stocking program created? The agency that makes the mess should be in charge of fixing the mess. Furthermore, given the many impacts caused by fish stocking, should efforts to mitigate these impacts be paid for using general fund
(i.e., taxpayer) dollars? It seems to me that these efforts should be paid for using revenues obtained directly from anglers (e.g., from fish licenses).

I don't claim to have any solutions to California's budget problems nor are the CDFGs many anachronistic practices easily reformed. However, I would suggest two important initial steps in the direction of reform. First, the CDFG should reduce its fish stocking program to include only to those elements that actually benefit fishery resources. This would eliminate all stocking of mountain lakes that contain self-sustaining trout populations, stocking of rivers and streams where hatchery trout have negative effects on the native trout, and rivers where the stocking of anadromous species negatively affects the native anadromous species. Second, the CDFG should pay for its catchable trout stocking program solely with revenues generated from a new "Hatchery Trout" stamp on licenses. Under such a program, anglers who fish in areas that are stocked by the CDFG with hatchery trout would need to purchase a hatchery trout stamp for their fishing licenses. Under the current system, all California anglers (many of whom avoid hatchery trout like the plague) unfairly end up subsidizing the hatchery program. It makes far more sense for those anglers who benefit from the hatchery program to support it instead of placing this burden on all anglers.

Such a hatchery trout stamp program might even convince me to dust off my neglected fly rod, buy a California fishing license (without a hatchery trout stamp), and go fish one of my favorite lakes or streams.

Back to The Mountain Yellow-legged Frog Site.


  1. Hi Roland,

    I actually agree that CDFG should be responsible for "cleaning up their own mess." I think their stocking and hatchery processes should be improved and targeted. I think you and some of your collegues have produced data on stocking vs. healthy trout lakes.

    I'm not a fan of yet another stamp that i think our licenses already cover; It would add pages and pages to the current DFG regs for where and where the stamp is required. If the costs are not covered, they should revamp the existing stamp process. Maybe instead of a stamp, an increase in the "use fee", like there is already for most areas where stocking is done.

    Just my thoughts,


  2. Hi Russ. I'm not a big fan of another stamp either. However of all of the programs the CDFG conducts stocking catchable trout is one of the most expensive. That cost should be born by the anglers who benefit from the program, not all anglers. Although a hatchery trout stamp would accomplish this perhaps there are other ways to meet the same objective.

  3. Hi Roland,

    I think the true problem with the DFG has been missed.

    I've spoken with many biologists that used to or still work for the DFG and they are frustrated with the DFG policies and procedures. The DFG charter is to manage the states wildlife resources. If you look at the management staff of the department, you will see a lack of biologist. Most decisions are based on politics, not science. If you look at the people appointed to the fish and game commission, only one might have a biology degree. Therefore, business is providing the direction to DFG.

    To add to the fact that many of the department decision are based on public opinions, this leads to bad decisions. I’ve attended state Fish and Game Commission meetings and several County Fish and Game meetings. When New Zealand mud snails were discovered in California, the DFG basically did nothing – no closures, no educational material, no warning signs. It took a group of fly fishermen to get the department to act. This was stupid. DFG knew it was coming, but did nothing.

    From what I’ve heard from DFG biologist, they have limited (if any) power to change DFG behaviors. If you want examples, look at what happens when they propose to have a doe hunt to better manage deer herds. It is met with deaf ears and County Board of Supervisors can veto any proposed hunt. Why not give this power to the biologist which is not running for re-election.

    In my opinion, the biologist should have more power within the department and the department should be given the power to manage the wildlife resources.



  4. Im going to have to agree with the dark side and put my vote in for moving everything over to the Department Of Conservation. My main reasoning for this is that I have always disagreed with real work and bucket biology being done by the same agency or sub-agency. This sends a message to the non-angling public and angling community that fish stocking is ok and that doing so is beneficial to fish populations and ecosystems. I am amazed by how many amateur nature enthusiasts are tricked by this as well as professional biologists. I am especially fearful about its impacts on students and new biologists in the field, individuals that one might say are generally naive and tend to think that all state agency activities are applying conservation or at the very least do not impact native ecosystems. My thoughts have developed as far as to thinking about writing an informal article to some journal about the importance of changing the names of state agencies to not include words like resources or game, because I think this sends out a distinct message to the general population that managing wildlife for people is the right thing to do.

    I also think that splitting stocking activities away from real activities would be a huge initial step in bringing about their demise. Incompetent stocking impact assessments produced by fish and game keep coming to mind as well and I would feel more comfortable if those activities were in the hands of natural heritage type agencies for more than one reason. As far as money goes I have no idea, never really cared much for it.