A proposal to raise Minnesota's hunting and fishing license fees for the first time in a decade looks to be dead on arrival at the State Capitol.

It appears unlikely that Republicans, who control the Legislature, will OK an increase proposed by the Department of Natural Resources and the Dayton administration.

"I don't think it's going to happen this year,'' said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chairman of the key Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

"We certainly can't support it when they sent us here not to raise taxes or fees ... we just can't do that,'' he said.

Republican Party chairman Tony Sutton sent out letters last month to legislators telling them that any increase in taxes, fees or gambling violates Republican principles.

But the DNR's Game and Fish Fund, which is funded almost entirely by hunting and fishing license fees, is targeted to go into the red by 2014. It pays for core fish, wildlife and law enforcement work. The DNR points out that increased costs over the past 10 years have eroded the buying power of license revenue.

"It might be something we look at for next year,'' Ingebrigtsen said. "They're not in the red until 2014.''

But next year is an election year, and a fee increase might be even harder to pass. Even if an increase passed this session, new revenue likely wouldn't flow to the DNR until 2013.

The DNR says it has made cost-cutting moves, but without adequate funding, "core fisheries, wildlife and enforcement work will go undone, and hunting and angling are likely to decline in quality.''

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, didn't rule out some increases that would help offset the DNR's current imbalance in spending between fisheries and wildlife. Hunters have been subsidizing fish programs in recent years.

"I'm hopeful we can deal with the imbalance,'' McNamara said.

Under the DNR's proposal, an individual fishing license, now $17, would cost $24; a small game license, now $19, would cost $22; and a deer license, now $26, would cost $30.

Fewer officers

The DNR had about 135 conservation officers patrolling the state in 1941 -- about the same number as today.

That's because the agency currently has 18 field officer vacancies thanks to retirements and other departures. (It also is shy another seven officers who don't work in the field.) Recent tight budgets have prevented the agency from filling those positions.

And the DNR expects to lose another 18 or so conservation officers to retirement by the end of 2013.

"If we do nothing, we'll be down about 40 officers, an all-time-high vacancy for this organization,'' said Jim Konrad, DNR enforcement chief.

One proposal is to use money from the hunting and fishing license fee increase to hire another 20 officers. Another would tap existing money in the Game and Fish Fund, but that would hasten the fund's depletion.

Even if the Legislature chooses one of those options, the 20 new hires would be offset by the expected departures, leaving the department still at 1940 levels.

A third proposal would raise boat registration fees to allow the DNR to hire up to eight officers to boost enforcement of invasive species laws.

What happens if the Legislature takes no action? "I'd like to remain optimistic,'' Konrad said. "I'd hate to think we'll let things go to hell.''

Boat fees to rise?

A different proposal in Gov. Mark Dayton's budget would increase the $5 boat registration surcharge, used to combat aquatic invasive species. That fee is for a three-year registration, meaning boaters are paying $1.66 a year. The fee hasn't changed since 1993. Citizens have urged the DNR to boost its efforts to prevent the spread of invasive species.

Under the proposal, the fee would jump to $20 for boats under 17 feet and $25 for boats over 17 feet. The surcharge for canoes would be $10. As part of the package, the nonresident fishing license surcharge, now $2, would increase to $5.

"That has a slight chance,'' Ingebrigtsen said. "We want to stop the spread of zebra mussels and deal with other aquatics, too. That will take a large infusion of dollars.''

But he said legislators are looking at other options, too, including tapping money from the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources.

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com