Fed wildlife grants helpful but don't go far enough

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has received another grant of about $850,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for non-game wildlife conservation. But a blue-ribbon panel thinks state wildlife agencies need 20 times more.

On Monday, the USFWS announced that the State Wildlife Grant program would divvy almost $50 million between the states and territories of the U.S for use in 2016. The 16-year-old matching-grant program is intended for conservation of primarily non-game wildlife and their habitat.

Nongame species often don’t get the same level of attention as big game, so funding can be harder to come by. Montana has a nongame check-off option on its state tax forms to allow people to donate a portion of their returns, but it pulls in only about $28,000 a year.

So FWP depends on State Wildlife Grants to pay for conservation and monitoring of everything from long-billed curlews and several species of owls to bats, black-footed ferrets and hoary marmots.

But the priority for SWG money is projects that benefit species that are on the verge of becoming threatened or endangered, such as Arctic grayling or sage grouse.

Since 2002, SWG funding in 14 western states has financed research and conservation of the greater sage grouse, which contributed to the recent USFWS ruling that an Endangered Species Act listing wasn't warranted. Current projects include habitat and genetic analysis, research on migration patterns and disease, as well as active reintroduction and augmentation projects.

“State wildlife agencies are critical in protecting America’s wild places and the animals that live there. These funds are an important component in their conservation and management efforts, and one that the Service is proud to help support,” said USFWS Director Dan Ashe in a release. “By working together with these and other partners, I am confident we can effectively conserve our nation’s natural legacy on a landscape scale for current and future generations of Americans.”

SWG money is portioned out using a formula based upon state population and land area. So the states of Alaska, California and Texas receive the most, this year receiving almost $2.5 million each.

But it wasn’t so long ago that Montana was receiving more than $850,000. Up until 2010, Congress appropriated more than $75 million, which meant Montana received about $1.3 million annually.

The total once got as high as $110 million, said Montana Wildlife Federation executive director Dave Chadwick. But it’s been cut to less than half of that for the past six years.

Some conservation groups are advocating for even greater sums that are more in line with those of the Pittman-Robertson or Dingle-Johnson acts.

A few weeks ago, the USFWS announced that Montana would receive $18.4 million from Pittman-Robertson and $8.6 million from Dingle-Johnson for 2016. The Pittman-Robertson Act taxes guns and ammunition to pay for the conservation of game species, and Dingle-Johnson Act taxes fishing gear and boat fuel to pay for sport-fish conservation.

But in 2000, Congressional politics undermined funding for nongame species.

Rather than fund the newly-created Wildlife Conservation and Restoration program, an angry appropriations committee chairman - Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.,  - funneled the money into the State Wildlife Grants program instead. Since then, the WCR has never received money.

That's why the FWP commission wrote a letter to Montana's congressional delegation in November, encouraging them to fully fund the WCR, in addition to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“The original idea was basically a three-legged stool of conservation: Pittman-Robertson money for game species, Dingle-Johnson for sport fish and Wildlife Conservation and Restoration for non-game. WCR would be funded to the tune of $350 million to $500 million a year,” Chadwick said. “The State Wildlife Grants aren’t getting that. Congress has always dramatically underfunded the program.”

Having watched funding opportunities dwindle over the past few decades, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies convened a 26-member blue-ribbon panel to come up with ways to provide more secure funding for fish and wildlife conservation nationwide. Headed by former Wyoming governor David Freudenthal, the panel included sportsmen, conservationists, and business and energy leaders.

The panel’s final conclusion?

“Congress (should) dedicate up to $1.3 billion annually in existing revenue from the development of energy and mineral resources on federal lands and waters to the Wildlife Conservation Restoration Program.”

The panel said the money was needed "to conserve 12,000 species in greatest need of conservation.”

Chadwick said that in Montana, a lot of that money would be used for conservation on private land, like it is with the sage grouse, so livestock producers should support it.

“When I was working on this 10 years ago, we had some really conservative people supporting the program because it helps avoid ESA listings. In Nebraska, the cattlemen would go to D.C. to lobby for funds for the program,” Chadwick said.