With no mention of a two-month delay that sent states like Montana and Colorado scrambling, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced on Tuesday that his agency would be releasing federal excise taxes to states, including $28 million that is directed to projects overseen by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“We were glad to see that,” said Mike Volesky, FWP’s chief of operations.
Zinke’s announcement came several weeks after Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., added his voice to a chorus of other conservation officials from across the nation calling for a release of the tax dollars. Tester’s office never received any response from Zinke, a former Montana Republican U.S. congressman who resigned to take the Interior job.
“Jon hopes that important requests about the future of Montana’s hunting and fishing opportunities are answered” in the future, a Tester spokeswoman wrote in an email.
When asked if it was normal for a senator’s letter to be ignored by a federal agency chief, Tester’s office pointed to a Politico story that said in part that a White House lawyer “told agencies not to cooperate with such requests from Democrats” out of fear “fear the information could be weaponized against President Donald Trump.”
“It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent, holding the federal government accountable should not be a partisan issue,” Tester’s office wrote.
The delay in the release of federal Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson funds — which are collected from taxes paid when someone purchases firearms, ammunition and some fishing gear — threatened Montana’s time-sensitive acquisition of a prime piece of real estate along the Bighorn River, just north of Hardin.
With the federal money released, the 425-acre addition to the Grant Marsh Wildlife Management Area is now scheduled to be finalized, possibly as early as next week, according to Darlene Edge, FWP’s land conservation specialist.
Three-quarters of the $1.57 million purchase price for the Bighorn River land is paid for from the excise taxes. The rest comes from a state account, which is funded by a fee paid by hunters.
“At least we have one we can check off,” Edge said.
The federal funds are distributed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A request for comment on the delay to an agency spokesman was directed to the Department of Interior’s general press office email. No response to the Gazette’s questions had been received by press time.
Zinke ordered the funding delay in an April 12 memo, requiring the Department of the Interior to review all grants valued at more than $100,000 in order to help him “ … understand the immense impact grants and cooperative agreements have on the mission delivery of the Department.”
“These grants represent over half the funding used to support Fisheries & Wildlife staff and operations across our state, and to support administration of these programs from our headquarters in Helena,” Adam Brooks, who oversees federal grants for FWP, wrote in an April email.
To cover the temporary shortfall, FWP turned to Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget office to “fill the hole in the meantime,” Volesky said. The agency also had to cancel a planned hunter education program since it was dependent on the federal funds.
The Department of Interior will distribute $1.1 billion in funding for state wildlife agencies this year, according to a DOI press release. Montana will receive $28 million, including almost $8 million in Sport Fish Restoration program funds and $20 million in Wildlife Restoration program funds.
Ironically, Zinke’s office made the announcement during his four-day trip across the Northeast where he was scheduled to meet with state fish and wildlife agency directors as part of a roundtable focusing on recreation and partnerships.
Allocations of the funds are authorized by Congress. To date, the USFWS has distributed more than $19 billion for state conservation and recreation projects. The recipient state wildlife agencies have matched the funds with about $6 billion, which is primarily collected through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.
“The conservation and outdoor recreation gains made possible by this funding mechanism, which is unique to the United States, serve as the bedrock of wildlife conservation in our country,” said Jim Kurth, acting director for the USFWS, in the press release.