HD44 - Feasibility of Consolidating Virginia's Wildlife Resource Functions

Executive Summary:
The 1995 General Assembly Session directed JLARC to review the feasibility of consolidating the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC). The 1996 General Assembly Session expanded this mandate by directing JLARC to review the existing division of responsibilities and authorities among all the natural resources agencies, and to consider various alternatives for changing the division of responsibilities.

This report focuses on agencies with wildlife management responsibilities, including DGIF, VMRC, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). Wildlife as used in this report includes all species of noncultivated plants and non-domesticated animals, including terrestrial and aquatic species. A subsequent report, to be completed in 1997, will focus on the responsibilities of natural resources agencies other than wildlife management.

DGIF is responsible for managing and enforcing laws and regulations on hunting, inland fishing, threatened and endangered animal species, other nongame animal species, and boating. VMRC is responsible for managing and enforcing laws and regulations pertaining to saltwater commercial and recreational fishing. DCR, through its Natural Heritage Division, is responsible for preserving the natural diversity of biological resources in the Commonwealth, including rare, threatened, and endangered plant, insect, and animal species. VDACS, through its endangered plant and insect program, is responsible for regulating threatened and endangered plants and insects.

Major conclusions of this report are:

Terrestrial wildlife management functions should be consolidated within DGIF.

While there are some important areas of difference, there are also some significant areas of overlap in the fisheries, habitat, and law enforcement responsibilities of DGIF and VMRC. Further, long-term trends suggest that VMRC is increasingly engaged in work similar to that traditionally associated with DGIF, while DGIF’s vision for the future includes taking a comprehensive approach to wildlife issues.

A consolidation of DGIF and VMRC thus appears feasible and should be considered. However, there are potential concerns with consolidation that will need to be taken into account. If policy-makers are interested in pursuing a consolidation, an implementation plan will be needed that considers agency management concerns about a consolidation as well as potential consolidation benefits and the long-term trends of the agencies.

Terrestrial Wildlife Management Functions Should Be Consolidated Within DGIF

DGIF, DCR, and VDACS share responsibility for managing Virginia’s terrestrial wildlife. Despite their similarities, DGIF and DCR Natural Heritage staff do not adequately cooperate. Consequently, their research is not coordinated and they maintain duplicative data on many wildlife species. In fact, the agencies maintain similar information on 521 of the same species on their databases. In addition, the VDACS endangered plant and insect program does not have adequate staff support, and relies on Natural Heritage staff for most of its research, and on DGIF for enforcement.

Consolidating these functions into a single agency would result in a number of advantages. These include: better services for the public, more accurate and complete wildlife information, improved species recovery efforts, and more efficient wildlife research.

Since DGIF has statutory responsibility for all wildlife, including threatened and endangered animal species, and it has a statewide network of biologists and law enforcement officers that are involved in these activities, these programs should be consolidated within DGIF. However, the name, priorities, and funding of DGIF need to be changed to reflect a commitment to the management of all wildlife, instead of just game wildlife. As part of this, DGIF should create a separate division which would include the Natural Heritage and VDACS staff, and DGIF should receive the positions and current level of funding of these programs.

There Is Significant Overlap of the Fisheries, Habitat, and Law Enforcement Responsibilities of DGIF and VMRC

This review has found that the responsibilities and tasks of DGIF and VMRC with regard to law enforcement, fisheries management, and habitat management are highly related. For example, each agency has responsibility for specific items that cross into each other’s geographic jurisdiction. DGIF has responsibility for boat registration and boat ramp maintenance throughout Virginia, including the Tidewater area, and for permitting marine events such as regattas. VMRC has responsibility for permitting projects encroaching submerged bottom-lands throughout Virginia.

In some areas, such as responsibility for American shad, the agencies have worked out an effective cooperative agreement. However, in areas such as aquaculture permitting, certain fisheries regulations, hunting and fishing enforcement, boating enforcement, and submerged bottomland enforcement, there are examples of duplication, gaps in services, and/or missed opportunities for improved service delivery.

Trends suggest that this overlap will continue to expand. Over the past several years, the number of hunters and commercial fishermen have declined. Similarly, VMRC shellfish enforcement activities have declined during the past 20 years. Chart: Marine Patrol Officer Enforcement Hours. The agencies’ responsibilities for these constituents’ services do not overlap -- DGIF manages hunting and VMRC manages commercial fishing. On the other hand, the number of recreational fishing licenses has remained constant and the recreational boating population has increased. DGIF and VMRC personnel share many responsibilities in these areas. Therefore, if these trends continue, the percentage of time DGIF and VMRC staff spend on activities that overlap with each other will likely increase.

In addition, this review has found that the nature of much of the work conducted by DGIF and VMRC is similar. Even where the responsibilities of the agencies are clearly divided, such as hunting and commercial seafood enforcement, the type of work performed by the staff to manage and enforce the resource is similar.

Consolidation of DGIF and VMRC Should Be Considered

Given the amount of overlap between DGIF and VMRC, the problems resulting from this overlap, and the trends that suggest the amount of overlap will increase, it is clear that at a minimum, better coordination between the agencies is needed. However, better coordination may not be enough. This report has identified a number of services that would be better provided by a single agency, such as deployment of law enforcement officers and fisheries regulation development and permitting. Therefore, consolidation of these agencies needs to be considered.

Consolidating DGIF and VMRC Would Enable Law Enforcement Officers to Better Protect Virginia’s Wildlife Re-sources and the Public. Consolidating VMRC and DGIF would improve protection of Virginia’s wildlife resources and the public by enabling better deployment of the officers, facilitating cross-training, and helping to address the marine patrol officers’ resource problems. Based on a survey of DGIF and VMRC law enforcement officers, more officers who responded to the survey support a consolidation of the agencies if it is well implemented than oppose it.

Consolidating DGIF and VMRC Would Enable More Effective Aquatic Wildlife Management. A consolidated agency would enable VMRC and DGIF fisheries responsibilities to be carried out more effectively. For instance, a single agency would be responsible for all of fisheries management, and there would not be confusion over which agency is responsible for threatened and endangered marine organisms. In addition, only one agency would be responsible for aquaculture permitting, thereby reducing the number of State on-site inspections of aquaculture farms.

Consolidating DGIF and VMRC Would Improve Protection of Submerged Bottomlands. Consolidating VMRC and DGIF would enable the permitting and enforcement of submerged bottomland activities throughout the State to be handled by one agency. By having biologists and law enforcement officers throughout the State available to address submerged bottomland issues, Virginia’s resources would be better protected.

Consolidating DGIF and VMRC Would Improve Boating Safety Enforcement and Enable More Equitable Use of Watercraft Sales Taxes. This review has identified a number of problems resulting from the overlap in boating responsibilities between DGIF and VMRC, including duplication of boating safety enforcement in the Tidewater area and inefficiencies in boating accident investigations. In addition, the Watercraft Sales and Use Tax could be distributed more equitably in the future by funding a portion of VMRC’s boating activities from this tax. Consolidation of the agencies would result in more efficient management of boating activities and eliminate duplicative boating safety inspections.

Consolidating DGIF and VMRC Would Enable Comprehensive Management of Virginia’s Wildlife. Consolidating DGIF and VMRC, along with DCR’s Natural Heritage Division and VDACS’ endangered plant and insect program, would enable all of Virginia’s wildlife to be managed by a single agency. This would conform Virginia’s wildlife management with the current focus on managing wildlife from a holistic perspective. This type of management acknowledges that wildlife are related and interact with each other within an ecosystem. Fourteen of the other 18 coastal states have marine and inland wildlife management housed within a single agency.

Consolidation Is Feasible, But Concerns Need to Be Considered

The arguments for a consolidation need to be juxtaposed against the concerns raised by DGIF and VMRC management and staff in order to draw some final conclusions about the feasibility of consolidation. The more significant concerns include the fact that the agencies serve many different constituents, their constituents are generally satisfied with the services provided, and some of the agencies’ primary responsibilities -- hunting and commercial fishing -- do not overlap. It appears that a number of these concerns could be addressed if the consolidation is accomplished in a manner that maintains or even enhances constituent services, does not diminish the attention given to game wildlife nor threaten the dedication of hunting fees to game purposes, and continues to devote attention to enhancing Virginia’s marine resources.

If a consolidation is pursued, it needs to be carefully timed and planned. Policy-makers will need to decide when they think that the benefits of a consolidation clearly outweigh the risks or disruptions that might be entailed in this change. Further, it will be important to develop a good implementation plan addressing the details of how the consolidation will be implemented and how it will work. Therefore, at some point the General Assembly may wish to require the Secretary of Natural Resources to develop a consolidation plan that addresses the issues raised in this report, and to submit an executive reorganization plan as indicated in Sections 2.1-8.1 through 2.1-8.8 of the Code of Virginia.