In a letter to Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, Montana Sen. Jon Tester has urged the former Montana congressman to give his home state’s wildlife agency some funding certainty.
Zinke has delayed distribution of excise taxes collected from hunters, anglers and boaters that are held in trust by the federal government and distributed to states through grants by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tester suggested Zinke provide states a timeline and create a waiver or expedited process for time-sensitive projects.
“Many of the local land managers you have worked to empower count on access to reliable funding from the Department to hire staff and execute land management decisions,” Tester wrote.
Tester’s letter came on the heels of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ revelation that distribution of almost $20 million in federal funding to the agency, largely from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will be delayed. The federal dollars represent almost half of the funding for fisheries and wildlife staff, according to an FWP memo.
Last week Nick Wiley, the president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies which represents state groups like FWP in Washington, also drafted a letter to Zinke pointing to specific state programs across the nation — including payroll — that could suffer “serious consequences.
“In particular we anticipate harmful effects on the operation and maintenance of the states’ wildlife management areas, hatcheries, research programs, boat access and other grants that provide for public access and use of facilities by hunters, anglers, boaters and recreational shooters,” Wiley wrote.
The letter goes on to cite programs in states such as Utah, Colorado, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia and Puerto Rico that are awaiting the federal grants for projects ranging from striped bass monitoring in North Carolina to hunter education in Colorado.
An email request to Zinke’s staff for comment on the Tester letter and any possible timeline for when the reviews might be completed was not received by press time. As of Wednesday, May 10, Zinke had not replied to Tester’s letter, which was dated May 3, according to the senator’s spokeswoman.
“We’ve heard absolutely zero from either the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) or from the secretary’s office in D.C.,” said Adam Brooks, who oversees the federal grants for FWP. “So we’re just continuing in limbo here. We have 21 grants and two grant amendments that have been with the Service for some time, and we don’t know how long it will be before they get a response from the DOI.”
An official at the regional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Denver, which oversees Montana FWP’s grants, said there had been no update about the Interior department review since Zinke issued the order in April.
“The impacts of this additional review has the potential to undermine numerous initiatives managed by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks,” Tester wrote.
In Montana, one such deal that may be in jeopardy — depending on the length of the stoppage — is the purchase of 425 acres of undeveloped land adjacent to the Grant Marsh Wildlife Management Area along the Bighorn River, just north of Hardin. Seventy-five percent of the $1.57 million purchase price was being paid for with federal money that’s now stalled.
“Grant Marsh is still on hold until we can get the go-ahead from Washington, D.C.,” said Darlene Edge, who is overseeing the deal for FWP.
Darell Tunnicliff, owner of the 425 acres along with his wife, Robin, said the decision by Zinke caught FWP and him by surprise in a process that has already taken more than a year to work its way through the system.
“I will do everything I can to facilitate the project,” Tunnicliff said. “I think it would be a very nice asset for the public. For a smaller acreage it has a very diverse ecosystem.”
Tunnicliff vowed to remain optimistic until he heard otherwise, but also noted that a lengthy postponement could jeopardize the deal.
“I’m committed to public access,” he said, noting that he was raised in Montana at a time when knocking on a landowner’s door and asking permission to trespass was often granted.
“We as a culture need these open spaces,” he said, adding that such a property within 45 minutes of Billings and so close to Hardin and the Bighorn River are rare and special.
The slowdown in distribution of federal funds was sparked by Zinke’s April 12 order that all Department of Interior grants of more than $100,000 be reviewed by his deputy secretary, James Cason, as a means for Zinke to understand “the immense impact grants and cooperative agreements have on” the Interior. The department annually distributes $5.5 billion in grants and cooperative agreements, the memo said.
Although sharing Zinke’s interest in responsible management of DOI, Tester encouraged the secretary to “provide more details on what is being investigated in this final step that has not otherwise been covered by existing application requirements.”
The move by Zinke seems contradictory to what he told Glacier National Park employees during a visit near his hometown in March. Back then he touted local control.
“If you don’t know the difference between the Potomac and the Yellowstone and the Middle Fork (of the Flathead) rivers, you shouldn’t be making decisions about them,” Zinke said. “That has come to an end. I’m going to push a lot of authority to you on the front line.”
Zinke was elected Montana’s lone congressman in 2014 using some advertisements that touted his interest in hunting and fishing. He was nominated 52nd Secretary of the Interior by President Donald Trump late last year. The U.S. Senate confirmed Zinke in March.
The U.S. Department of the Interior website features a photo of Zinke fly fishing and notes that while in Congress he championed “sportsmen’s access, conservation, regulatory relief, forest management, responsible energy development, and smart management of federal lands."