Colorado Parks & Wildlife facing budget cuts as Interior Department delays federal grants

The Department of the Interior’s review of all grants over $100,000 has stopped the flow of federal money to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, threatening the agency’s ability to manage wildlife and support its various conservation programs.

An April memo sent by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to his assistant secretaries directed them to delay and report all distributions over $100,000 in order to “assess how we are aligning our grants and cooperative agreements to department priorities.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife receives about 20 percent of its funding — nearly $30 million — from a trio of federal grant programs funneled through the Interior department. The venerable Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson programs direct the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to distribute taxes collected on the sale of hunting and fishing equipment to states based on a formula that accounts for state size and number of hunters. State Wildlife Grants, which require a state’s 25 percent match, support state wildlife conservation efforts like research, habitat management and restoration, and species surveys.

The suspension of federal support comes as Colorado Parks and Wildlife faces a financial crisis. The agency pushed a financial sustainability bill in the recent legislative session that would have allowed the wildlife commission to raise residential hunting and fishing fees to prevent a looming $15 million to $20 million shortfall by 2023. The bill died in a Senate committee, but the agency’s financial challenges remain.

“Any potential funding changes accelerate CPW’s problems, with ripple effects on other agency work,” agency spokeswoman Lauren Truitt said. “We are kind of getting a double whammy here.”

If the flow of federal grant money stops, the agency can use other funds to temporarily cover the gap. But Truitt said it’s unclear where the state money spent to cover the federal delay will be reimbursed, casting an even darker shadow on the agency’s finances. If the delay of federal funds goes beyond a month, or into July and the next fiscal year, Truitt said the agency would be unable to continue staffing for research, wildlife management, habitat enhancement, education and wild lands development.

“CPW does not have sufficient revenue to cover all anticipated expenditures,” she said.

State wildlife agencies across the country are sweating the sudden blockage of federal funding. They are wondering if they spend money now, will it be reimbursed. The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies president Nick Wiley earlier this month sent a letter to Zinke urging him to fast track the review, citing the more than $1 billion in excise tax revenue from hunting and fishing equipment sales that supported wildlife and fish restoration in fiscal 2016.

Wiley’s letter, which details the impact of lost federal grants on dozens of state wildlife programs, notes that Colorado Parks and Wildlife would lose $3.5 million in matching funds for hunter education programs if federal funding is delayed beyond July 1.

“We anticipate harmful effects on the operation and maintenance of the states’ wildlife management areas, hatcheries, research programs, boat access, and other grants that provide for public access and use of facilities by hunters, anglers, boaters and recreational shooters,” Wiley’s letter says.

The association’s executive director Ron Regan said it’s not unusual to see large-scale reviews following a shift in administrations.

“Certainly some state agencies are concerned that a new layer of review might jeopardize the timely approval of grants,” Regan said, noting that Zinke’s memo described the review as temporary and short-term. “We don’t have any real response yet on where this might land, but we are hopeful as they get their legs under them they will see and understand how important these funds are. Given how much the administration is likely to partner with states and given how much some of the new leadership in the Interior department has a clear interest in sportsmen and women, I think we will end up the right place.”

The federal funding freeze comes as Zinke’s Bureau of Land Management suspends its resource advisory council meetings as part of a national review of the agency’s committees and advisory boards. The meeting suspension coincides with Zinke’s calls for public input on potential issues surrounding the creation of national monuments in the last 20 years. Public comments can be made at regulations.gov.

“We are deeply concerned that canceling all public advisory committee activities until further notice fundamentally undermines trust in the public process, and eliminates a vital opportunity for public input in the management of our public lands,” reads a letter sent to Zinke on Thursday and signed by more than 70 advisory council members from across the country, urging the secretary to reinstate the board meetings.