This story has been updated to reflect a change in the 'Nationally' section. A meeting on Thursday was misattributed to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
A recent memo from Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke requiring a review of all grants more than $100,000 has Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks scrambling to understand and deal with the consequences.
“We were surprised,” said Adam Brooks, who oversees federal grants for FWP.
The Montana agency receives a large portion of its funding from federal grants that it relies on to start its July 1 fiscal year. Those grants fund 75 percent of the cost of jobs like wildlife biologists and administrative staff. The Department of Interior funds, if delayed, could also affect the acquisition of 450 acres of new wildlife habitat along the Bighorn River, an addition to the Grant Marsh Wildlife Management Area that was recently approved.
The Department of Interior annually distributes $5.5 billion in grants and cooperative agreements, according to the memorandum Zinke signed on April 12 and which took effect on April 19. Zinke, a Montana resident and former U.S. Congressman, said in the memo that he was issuing the directive to help him “…understand the immense impact grants and cooperative agreements have on the mission delivery of the Department.”
Although the memo says the “procedures are temporary” and that business as usual would return “as soon as possible,” no end date is given.
All requests must get the approval of James Cason, The Interior's deputy secretary, the memo said, who will be assisted by the Office of Acquisition and Property Management.
FWP was expecting to get almost $20 million in federal funding and begin spending it on July 1.
“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,” Brooks wrote in an email to Eric Hyatt, who represents eight western state wildlife agencies.
A delay of funding until late July or August could “very likely result in the loss of (the Grant Marsh WMA) purchasing opportunity,” Brooks added.
A grant that would have helped pay for a statewide Hunter Education conference and instructor training event in June will be cancelled since the federal funding cannot be approved in time. An overdraft of more than $300,000 has also been incurred by FWP so far because of the grant delay.
“For anything federally funded it’s definitely a blow,” Brooks said.
The two big questions in Brooks’ mind are: How long will funding be delayed? And if FWP covers the costs of the grants in the short term, will the grant funds be honored and the state reimbursed, or will the agency be left with a deficit?
“There’s not any guarantees and that’s frightening,” Brooks said.
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Zinke’s directive affects more than just state wildlife agencies which receive funds administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Agencies under the Department of Interior umbrella include the National Park Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and U.S. Geological Survey.
Representatives from some of those agencies referred all questions to public relations officials. Other spokespeople were unaware of the memo or bumped media requests to their national headquarters, which had not responded by press time.
A BLM Montana spokeswoman said her agency doesn't have any grants that would meet the $100,000 threshold.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department spokesman Renny Mackay said his agency wouldn’t be as hard hit as Montana since its budget is structured differently.
“We’ve got a little more time to see how this might affect us,” he said. “We get about 25 percent of our revenue from (grant programs)," that could be delayed.
Mackay added that the Wyoming wildlife agency is keeping an eye on the issue and will be talking with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials soon to understand possible ramifications.
The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, which provides a collective voice for state game agencies in Washington, D.C., is reportedly drafting a letter to Zinke that could be delivered as soon as today outlining the consequences to states of his grant review requirement, according to an email.
AFWA spokeswoman Patricia Allen said the memo was “one of the top” items being discussed by her superiors. She said the group was not ready to comment on the issue and would not confirm that a letter was being drafted.
Much of the money for FWP comes from Pittman-Robertson funds collected from a federal tax on firearms and ammunition purchases, as well as Dingell-Johnson funds that are gathered from a tax on fishing gear and some boat engine sales. Those federal dollars granted to states come with very specific sideboards on how they can be spent.
In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service distributed $1.1 billion to state wildlife agencies for conservation, wildlife and administration collected from Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson excise taxes.
Another program that is less reliable in terms of state funding is the State Wildlife Grant Program, which benefits wildlife and their habitat. The SWG funds are appropriated by Congress.
President Trump’s 2018 budget has proposed cutting $1.5 billion from the Department of Interior, a 12 percent reduction, prompting some to speculate that Zinke may be looking for ways to shave off dollars. In a March press release Zinke said the budget would still enable “the Department to meet its core mission and prioritizes programs that will put Americans’ security first.”
The press release also said, “The budget reduces land acquisition funding by more than $120 million and focuses available discretionary funds on investing in and maintaining existing parks, refuges, and public lands.”