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MISSOULA — Think what you want about the gun control debate, but it’s great for wildlife.

Federal excise taxes on sales of guns and ammunition get returned to state wildlife agencies. And the latest appropriation, just released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was up 33 percent over the previous year.

“People do a lot of purchasing and buying in anticipation of Congress changing laws,” said Sue Daly, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks finance division administrator. “We did shift more current operations budget from state funds to federal to utilize this windfall.”

The federal government disbursed $882.4 million to all 50 states through what are known as the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration and Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration programs. The money comes from taxes on archery equipment, fishing gear and electric outboard motors, as well as firearms.

This year, Montana received $13.8 million in wildlife grant funds and $8.5 million in sport fish grants from 2012 receipts. Overall, the state ranked 11th in total excise tax returns. Texas was No. 1, with $41.9 million, followed by Alaska ($39.8 million) and California ($35.2 million).

But per person, Montanans ranked third for wildlife funds at $13.73 apiece. Alaska ranked first at $29.92 per citizen. Wyoming spent slightly more per person than Montana ($16.23), even though it received less overall ($9.4 million). The state has just over half of Montana’s population of 1 million people.

The money gets allocated  through a formula based on state land size and the number of fish-and-game license holders. State agencies must contribute one dollar for every three federal matching dollars.

Since the Pittman-Robertson program started in 1937, it’s left big marks on Montana’s landscape. The Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area north of Clearwater Junction was one of the state’s first big-game preserves, purchased in the 1940s.

Last year, Pittman-Robertson dollars contributed most of the purchase price for the wildlife management area portion of the Fish Creek drainage, south of Alberton.

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The money also underwrites flying time for aerial wildlife surveys, biologist field time and block management hunter access to private lands.

Daly said FWP remains wary of assuming the federal wildlife support dollars will always be around. In the past six years, they’ve fluctuated wildly.

In 2007, Montana took in $7 million in Pittman-Robertson tax receipts from the previous year. That jumped 16.4 percent to $8.2 million in 2008. While Barack Obama campaigned against John McCain for president, it rose again to $9 million in 2009.

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After Obama’s victory, it leapt to $12.8 million in 2010 before sliding back to $9.7 million in 2012.

But the 2013 receipts, which come from the 2012 election year, jumped 42.5 percent in Montana to $13.9 million.

“We’re seeing an election-year bump,” said FWS information management chief Steve Barton. “It’s been similar to when discussion on the Brady Bill got going (in 1993). When you start talking about restricting gun and ammo sales, we see an increase in excise tax receipts. And during these last two elections, there’s been some discussion about restrictions on firearms.”

In contrast, sport fishing dollars from the Dingell-Johnson Restoration Fund went from $8.2 million in 2007 to a high of $9.6 million in 2009 before declining to $8.2 million last year.

“With all the discussion on gun control and ammo restrictions, we’re seeing continued large increases in excise taxes,” Barton said. “Where we finally end up is anybody’s guess, but the first quarter’s tax receipts are strong. This could be another banner year.”

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