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Maine Wildlife Agency Feeling Pinch of Dwindling 'Chickadee Checkoff' Funds
02/01/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

Maine's Chickadee Checkoff program is in trouble. That's the program conservation-minded Mainers can choose to support by marking a specially-designated box on their income tax returns. But too often, filers are choosing to skip the option. As Jennifer Mitchell reports, revenue collected from the Chickadee Checkoff - along with the loon license plate - has dwindled to a fraction of what it once was.

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If money collected through the Chickadee Checkoff program gets much lower, says Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife spokesman Doug Rafferty, the program might disappear altogether.

"We're in danger of getting down to that threshhold level, which is $25,000 dollars annually," he says. Any less than $25,000, and the box will be removed from the tax form.

While management of big game animals, like moose and deer, is supported by revenue collected from hunting licenses, non-game animals, such as Canada lynx or bald eagles, have few revenue streams available. Enter the Chickadee Checkoff in the 1980s, and then the Loon License Plate almost a decade later.

In just its second year, the Chicadee Checkoff raised more than $129,000 for conservation through the generosity of nearly 30,000 Mainers. By 2005, fewer than 3,000 people were opting to give. And at last count, the program had raised less than $37,000.

What Mainers may not realize, says Rafferty, is that every $1 collected through the tax checkoff represents about $3 in federal matching money.

"If we were to just get even 3 to 4 percent of Mainers checking off the Chickadee Checkoff on their tax return, we'd have a whole lot more funding coming in, and this would give us a substantial increase for non-game and endangered species and the like," Rafferty says.

Early on, the Chickadee Checkoff was prominently featured in the tax booklet. Now you can locate the check box somewhere near the back on Schedule CP. It's even more difficult to find on online programs. And, to further complicate matters, the Chickadee Checkoff box is not the only one.

"Other people caught on to the idea, and now there are many different options for checkoffs," says Sally Stockwell of Maine Audubon. Stockwell says the same thing happened to the Loon Plate: Soon after its debut and demonstrated success, several different types of benefit plates became available - for breast cancer, farming, and animal welfare, to name a few.

The result has contributed to a chronic underfunding of Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Ten years ago, Maine Audubon worked together with the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine and forest industry representatives to find how much was lacking from the state's conservation budget.

The number, she says, was shocking: "Twenty million dollars, annually, that we don't have funding for right now, that we really need funding for."

While Maine Audubon and the state are hoping people will recommit to the Chickadee Checkoff and the Loon Plates, Stockwell says a more stable source of funding is needed.

That may come - at least partially - through a bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Michael Shaw of Standish. The text of the bill hasn't been written yet, but according to David Trahan of the Sportsman's Alliance Of Maine, the bill would guarantee the Wildlife Department a $5 million share in all future energy corridor settlements.


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