Sales of the state’s conservation license plates have been declining for years. With introduction this spring of a sportsman license plate, revenues are apt to drop even more, widening the shortfall in funding for state parks and wildlife. Rather than relying on license plates and a tax checkoff, the state’ s wildlife and conservation departments need a reliable, consistent source of funding for this work.

The conservation plates, often called loon plates because of the picture of the bird on them, were first issued in 1994. At the time, many believed the plates were popular, in part, because many motorists didn’ t like the state’ s standard-issue lobster plates, which features red — i.e. boiled — crustaceans.

Since the state switched to a more aesthetically pleasing chickadee for standard license plates, the sales of loon plates have steadily declined.

The best year for loon plate sales was 1998, when more than 110,000 vehicles had them. They have since steadily dropped, and in 2007, fewer than 64,000 vehicles bore the plates. This has resulted in a significant drop in funding for some wildlife and conservation projects.

The plates cost $20 the first time and $15 to renew, in addition to regular registration fees. Of this money, $8.40 goes to the Department of Conservation’ s Bureau of Parks and Lands and the Endangered and Non-game Wildlife Fund, managed by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The departments have received more than $14 million from loon plates.

With their declining popularity, work funded by this money is in jeopardy. IF&ampW says the decreased funding imperils the jobs of 10 biologists who work on threatened and endangered species, such as Canada lynx, Arctic tern, freshwater mussels and piping plover.

Funding from the chickadee checkoff, a box on the state income tax return, also has plummeted. It reached a high of $129,000 from 6 percent of taxpayers in 1985 to less than $37,000 from 0.5 percent of taxpayers in 2006.

At the same time, sportsmen have rightly balked at repeated license and fee increases to support IF&ampW work. Lawmakers in 2003 agreed to cover 18 percent of the department’s budget from the state’s general fund to support work devoted to people who don’t fish, hunt, snowmobile or partake in other so-called consumptive uses. With perennially scarce state funds, progress toward the 18 percent has been minimal.

Lawmakers must find a way to bridge this gap — through a higher price for loon plates or by dedicating more general funds to the wildlife agency — or risk perennial debates on the department’ s priorities.