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Legislature needs to fix game warden funding

Unlike most government agencies, which are funded by tax dollars, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is funded almost entirely by a combination of hunter and angler license sales and federal excise tax dollars on guns, ammunition, fishing tackle and related gear. While complicated, this system, which is over 80 years old, has been responsible for the recovery and management of our state’s unmatched wildlife resources.

The federal funds that support wildlife management programs within Fish, Wildlife and Parks are allocated though the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Act. This Act was passed in 1937, during the throes of the Great Depression, when wildlife was struggling just as people were experiencing the worst economic times in our nation’s history. Hunters stepped up and said they were willing to have the federal excise taxes on firearms and ammunition set aside for wildlife. These funds are allocated to FWP and other wildlife agencies in every other state for habitat projects, wildlife management and scientific research.

Pittman-Robertson funds have strict guidelines to ensure the money goes to wildlife and habitat and not other government functions, like enforcement. The track record of the program is remarkable: today we enjoy abundant big game, upland birds, and waterfowl as a direct result of Pittman Robertson. This means plenty of hunting opportunity for Montanans and nonresidents, which fuels our economy and ultimately generates more revenue back into the Pittman Robertson program.

Unfortunately, the Legislature last year chose to tinker with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks budget and upset this highly effective program while also adversely impacting the department’s law enforcement activities. Specifically, the Legislature decided that FWP should “charge” 30 percent of game wardens’ time to federal Pittman Robertson funds. While it sounds like a budgetary footnote, this change was significant. Under Pittman Robertson rules, 30 percent of game wardens’ time must be now spent on wildlife management and public outreach activities and not law enforcement. Instead of paying biologists to do wildlife management and game wardens to do game law enforcement, the Legislature forced FWP to pay game wardens to do wildlife management and public outreach.

This change has resulted in less patrol and enforcement, much to the dismay of private landowners, outfitters and hunters. Fewer hunters and anglers are being checked, investigations of poachers are down. Because they can’t work full-time on wildlife management activities, wardens are spending time doing things as basic as picking up trash on wildlife management areas. Wardens go to work every day worrying about whether their time will qualify for PR dollars, and enforcement of Montana’s game laws is suffering.

The change has also forced game wardens to go through more paperwork. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service strictly monitors how states use Pittman Robertson dollars to ensure that the funds aren’t being misallocated. Requiring nearly a third of game wardens’ time go into Pittman Robertson activities demands a great deal of record-keeping on a day-to-day basis. The change also virtually guarantees that FWP will receive a formal audit by the federal government.

Mandating that game wardens’ time should go to non-enforcement work was a bad choice that our wildlife, hunters, landowners and outfitters are paying a price for. It’s also costing other conservation priorities.

The Pittman Robertson funding system has worked for decades, and there was no need to change it in 2017. In light of the many unintended consequences, it’s vital that the 2019 Legislature restore the old funding formula for our game wardens and let them get back to the important work of enforcing our game laws to protect our valued wildlife.

— Bill Geer is president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. Wagner Harmon is president of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.

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