Montana’s fisheries budget to be cut by $1 million

Montana’s fisheries budget to be cut by $1 million

Source: Bozeman Daily Chronicle
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By Michael Wright

Montana officials are looking to cut the state’s fisheries budget by about $1 million to make up for a decline in federal money and to stay within the spending authorized by the 2017 Montana Legislature.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has identified parts of the fisheries division’s budget that can be cut, including some fish stocking programs, equipment budgets and streamflow gauge funding. FWP officials said the cuts are the result of a long-term decline in funding from a federal excise tax on fishing tackle and limited spending authority from the 2017 Legislature.

Martha Williams, FWP’s director, said the cuts won’t eliminate any permanent jobs, and that they hope it will help the division’s budget remain healthy in the long-term.

“While there are impacts and they’re hard, we are trying to be fiscally responsible,” Williams said.

The cuts come at a time when much of the state government is feeling fiscal pressure due to a revenue shortfall. But FWP’s budget is almost completely separate because the agency has its own funding sources — hunting and fishing license sales and a few major pots of federal money.

One of the federal money pots was created by the Dingell-Johnson Act, which levies an excise tax on fishing gear. Funds are distributed to each state by the Department of the Interior, and they go toward fisheries programs.

FWP’s fisheries division has long been funded by a combination of Dingell-Johnson funds and money from the agency’s license account, but recently the state’s share has been growing. In the past, FWP officials told the Chronicle, as much as 75 percent of the fisheries budget came from Dingle-Johnson, and the state paid 25 percent.

“We’re now at 60/40,” said Eileen Ryce, FWP’s fisheries division administrator, adding that it’s likely the mix will be half-and-half in the future.

Data provided to the Chronicle showed that the agency received more than $9 million in Dingell-Johnson between 2007 and 2010. It hasn’t reached that level since 2010. This year, the agency received roughly $8.4 million.

Because of that decline, FWP spends more license money on fisheries. The Legislature passed a license fee increase in 2015 to bring in more money for the entire agency, but the agency still has to ask the Legislature to authorize a certain level of spending every two years.

Because the Legislature decides how much they can spend, FWP can’t simply backfill the fisheries budget and stave off cuts with excess license dollars. They have to live within what the 2017 Legislature said they could spend.

Dustin Temple, FWP’s chief of administration, said they’ll ask the 2019 Legislature to let them spend more out of their general license account in an effort to ease these cuts.

The spending reductions will come from the division’s base budget, and won’t affect its aquatic invasive species or fishing access site programs.

Each of FWP’s seven regions will take a hit, according to a sheet of proposed cuts provided to the Chronicle. Bozeman-based Region 3 is slated for a $31,000 cut, the largest to any individual region within the state, which will affect population sampling and outreach efforts. In Region 5, which lies directly east of Region 3, mountain lake sampling will be cut by 30 percent.

The operations budget for the Helena-based headquarters will be slashed by roughly $150,000, a 58 percent reduction, according to the sheet. That includes a reduction in travel for employees there and the cancellation of an annual statewide fisheries staff meeting.

The entire fisheries equipment fund will be cut — about $192,000 — which means any fisheries equipment that’s broken beyond repair won’t be replaced. Roughly $100,000 will be cut from the agency’s program to stock fish larger than 7 inches. That’s a 50 percent reduction in that program, which affects stocking in reservoirs like Canyon Ferry.

About $180,000 will be cut by ending the agency’s contracts to help pay for U.S. Geological Survey streamflow gauges across the state. Funding for the gauges is good through next June, and in the meantime Williams said she hopes either private funders or the USGS will kick in cash to keep the gauges running.

David Brooks, the executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, said that cut is particularly significant because it affects agricultural producers, too. Several drought management plans around the state rely on streamflow data for making decisions.

He said his group had been approached about paying for the gauges, but he wasn’t sure it was something they want to do.

“That’s a slippery slope for us and the state really to be funding these things,” Brooks said. “They ought to be paid for federally.”