Montana FWP won’t seek fee hike from Legislature, but needs $1M for ailing parks

Swimmers and canoiests enjoy Wayfarers State Park on Flathead Lake, one of the busiest state parks in Montana. (David Reese/Missoula Current)

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks won’t ask the state Legislature for any license fee increases, but that doesn’t mean the agency couldn’t use more money.

On Wednesday night, FWP Director Martha Williams told the Region 2 Citizens Advisory Council and state legislators in Missoula that her agency’s overall budget is her priority during the 2019 Legislature that convenes in January, especially when it comes to the beleaguered State Parks Division.

“We’re going forward with a healthy ending fund balance such that we will not be asking for an increase in hunting or licensing fees,” Williams said. “But to be conservative – we don’t know what our license sale revenue will be in the future, I want to be prepared for that to drop, even though I don’t want it to drop – I’ve asked staff to come up with one-time-only expenses where we finally address some of our much-needed infrastructure.”

The last FWP license fee increase was approved in 2015 after a decade of no changes. A council recommended that the agency ask legislators for fee changes every four years instead of every 10 to ensure the money was sufficient to support the agency.

Williams said that won’t be necessary this time around, because non-resident licenses have been selling out, unlike in 2013 and 2014 when budget predictions were made. So FWP still has $23 million in its general license account, which is where the Fish and Wildlife Division gets most of its money.

That’s about $8 million more than expected, so Williams will ask the Legislature to transfer about $1 million to the Parks Division.

“On the Fish and Wildlife side of the department, things look pretty good. On the Parks side, things are a little different,” said FWP Administration Chief Dustin Temple. “We will end the current biennium with a $1.6 million balance, which is about a $500,000 less than I like to see at the end, just as a shock absorber against a downturn in revenue.”

The only catch with the money transfer is that anglers and hunters pay into the license account, and they expect that money to go back to fish and wildlife. But Williams said the department was measuring the extent that sportsmen use state parks to justify the one-time transfer while they try to rebuild the Parks Division budget.

The 2017 Legislature pulled funding away from state parks because the department had a large ending fund balance at the time – $11.2 million. The reason appeared to be poor management – managers hadn’t spent the money they were given, in spite of the division’s mounting maintenance backlog and staffing shortages.

“I took this job only because the governor committed to support me in supporting our state parks,” Williams said. “I have asked the governor to have permission and a long enough leash to advocate for increased funding.”

Things also aren’t running that smoothly for the enforcement portion of the Fish and Wildlife Division. Wardens aren’t able to do their jobs full-time because of some creative accounting mandated by the 2017 Legislature.

Lawmakers decided that 30 percent of the law enforcement budget should come from federal Pittman-Robertson money, which is raised by taxes on guns and ammunition.

But the Pittman-Robertson Act says that money can’t be used for law enforcement. So wardens have to devote 30 percent of their time to something other than law enforcement, like helping biologists with surveys.

It also means the agency must rigorously document wardens’ duties. If a federal audit were to find that money is being misused, FWP could lose all Pittman-Robertson money – about $21 million – that is essential for many wildlife programs and pays 75 percent of biologists’ wages, said FWP Operations Chief Mike Volesky.

“I think there was the perception that enforcement had traditionally worked more closely with landowners and (legislators) thought this would encourage more of that. But it kind of backfired. What we’ve heard from landowners is ‘we’re seeing less law enforcement presence out there and we’re missing it because of the other duties they have,’ ” Volesky said.

Local landowner Tracy Manley said he was having problems and warned that FWP could lose hunter access to private land. Fewer landowners would be willing to open their property to hunters through the Block Management program if wardens aren’t available to manage hunters.

State Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, told Manley to speak up during the Legislature.

“I would like to see everybody here (come to Helena) when committee hearings are going on about bills about FWP,” Curdy said. “The points you made about the problems you face because of a lack of enforcement really needs to be heard loud and clear, because that’s the only way it’s going to get changed.”

Williams said she will also ask the Legislature for permission to restore the $1 million she cut from the fisheries budget; add to the wildlife budget so wolf and bear specialists can be hired on a more permanent basis; create a fleet system for boats and aircraft; and upgrade the FWP automated licensing system so it can handle parks reservations.

Finally, Williams and her staff know FWP faces a challenge in renewing the Aquatic Invasive Species program funding, which sunsets in 2019.

The 2017 Legislature approved about $6 million a year for the program, which inspects boats around the state for tiny zebra and quagga mussel stowaways. If these species get into Montana’s waters, they could spread rapidly, encrusting every surface to cause millions of dollars of damage to pipes, turbines, boats and fisheries.

The problem is that the hydropower industry, which chipped in about half of the money, doesn’t want to have to contribute any more, even though it has a lot to lose if mussels invade.

Curdy, sponsor of the AIS funding bill, said the interim Environmental Quality Council is honoring the hydropower demand. But that could change once the bill gets to the Legislature because people researching funding sources are “still kicking the tires,” Curdy said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.