State wildlife agencies across the nation received a financial shot in the arm Tuesday when the U.S. Department of the Interior announced more than $1.1 billion in federal conservation assistance will be available in fiscal year 2018.
Of that, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department is eligible for more than $18.2 million in grant money for conservation and outdoor recreation.
“We operate off the federal government’s fiscal year, which is Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, and we have two fiscal years to spend that money,” said Scott Simpson, GFP administrative resources chief. “So for that FY 2018 money, we have until Sept. 30 of 2019 to spend it.”
Simpson said the federal funds will account for more than 30 percent of GFP’s $56 million budget for fiscal year 2018. He said the federal money is vital to sustaining and growing GFP services such as public hunting opportunities, hatchery and stocking efforts, research projects and surveys, habitat enhancement, campground amenities and more.
A brief history
The federal funds are generated by the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, which is designed to help individual states manage natural resources with grant programs that directly benefit fish and wildlife and support hunter education, according to a news release from the Department of the Interior. The funds are derived from excise taxes paid by the hunting, shooting, boating and angling industries. Allocation of the funds is authorized by Congress, and the money is distributed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
While it has a lot of moving parts, the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program is basically a combination of two federal measures — the Wildlife Restoration Act and the Sport Fish Restoration Act.
The Wildlife Restoration Act, which is commonly referred to as the Pittman-Robertson Act, took shape in 1937 when outdoors enthusiasts and the ammunition industry successfully lobbied Congress to place an 11 percent excise tax on the sale of all firearms and ammunition. The act has been amended through the years to place similar excise taxes on items such as archery equipment and handguns.
The Sport Fish Restoration Act, also called the Dingell-Johnson Act, followed in 1950 and imposed a 10 percent tax on certain fishing equipment. It has also been amended several times to place similar excise taxes on more fishing equipment, including trolling motors, sonar devices and small-engine boat fuel.
Today, people contribute to these funds whenever they purchase hunting and fishing equipment. In essence, hunters and anglers willingly tax themselves thanks to the program, which, to date, has apportioned more than $20.2 billion for hunting and fishing conservation.
In order to access the federal funding provided by each act, states were required to pass “assent” legislation that guarantees license fees paid by hunters and anglers would only be used for the administration of state fish and game departments. In other words, the overall Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program not only provides funding for wildlife conservation and habitat restoration, but it also ensures license fees can’t be used by other state agencies.
How it works
Simpson said there isn’t a set amount each state receives each year. Instead, the dollar amount appropriated for each state depends on several factors.
He said the amount of Pittman-Robertson dollars that individual states receive is determined by two significant factors — license numbers and land mass.
“The amount the state receives from Pittman-Robertson goes by unique individuals that purchase a hunting license in South Dakota, including residents and nonresidents, and then it also goes by land mass, or the acres within South Dakota proper,” he said. “Land mass doesn’t change, but license sales do.”
On the aquatic side, Simpson said Dingell-Johnson dollars are appropriated based on fishing license sales and the amount of water the state manages.
“We’re in the middle of the pack on the Pittman-Robertson side of things, but we’re on the lower end of the spectrum for fishing dollars,” he said. “This isn’t a new funding source. We know we have to strategically take advantage of that money when we want to build or start something new. In years where we see a bump in license dollars, it allows us to do some different things.”
In years like 2017 when license sales were down, Simpson said it forces GFP to reprioritize its budget.
“In years when we don’t sell a lot of licenses we’ll likely earmark federal funds to help pay for ongoing expenses. We don’t want anglers and hunters to see a lag in services,” he said. “We have to sharpen our pencil a bit and make sure every dollar we’re spending on those year-in, year-out expenses are getting coded to federal grants whenever possible because we don’t have as many hard dollars on hand from license sales.”
South Dakota first received funding from the Pittman-Robertson Act in 1939 in the amount of $13,433. Since, GFP has received over $198 million in Pittman-Robertson funding.
In 1952 the state received its first appropriation from the Dingell-Johnson Act in the amount of $36,769. Fast forward more than 60 years and the total amount the state has received from the sport fish fund is more than $115 million.
This year, GFP’s appropriation from the Pittman-Robertson Act is more than $13.7 million, and the state’s share from the Dingell-Johnson Act is roughly $4.5 million. Together, those funds add up to the $18.2 million that was announced.
However, Simpson said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t simply hand over a check for $18.2 million. Instead, he said it’s more of a cost-share grant program where every dollar GFP spends on approved projects is matched by $3 in grant funding from the federal agency.
“It’s not money in the bank. There are only certain things that qualify for each program, and in order to use those funds we submit grants to USFWS,” he said. “We actually pay 100 percent of the cost for a project, then they look at it and reimburse us for 75 percent of it.”
Simpson said the other 25 percent of the cost share is funded by license dollars.
For example, Simpson said if GFP were to build a boat ramp that costs $100,000, the department would pay that amount up front, then submit a grant in order to be reimbursed $75,000 for the project.
“That’s how the process works,” he said. “And trust me, when you’re in a state agency you’re going to make sure you use up all that money.”
Simpson said it’s important to remember that federal dollars can’t be used for every expense. He said law enforcement, for example, doesn’t qualify for this type of federal grant.
“These funds are intended to go back to the management of fish and wildlife, so that’s where they stay,” he said.
Simpson also said the federal funding is largely responsible for many of the opportunities outdoorsmen and women enjoy in South Dakota on a regular basis.
“I think it’s safe to say without this funding we wouldn’t see a walk-in area program in South Dakota like we have now,” he said. “We’ve used those federal dollars to help pay for that program, and they’ve also been a huge part of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Project in the James River Valley. In general, the ability to go out and access 1.2 million acres of private land is a big deal for our state and a big deal for our hunters.”
Simpson said the money is also responsible for little things, too.
“It helps pay for research projects like radio collars on bighorn sheep, fishery surveys, helicopter surveys or collars for deer and fawn survival, population estimates, fish-cleaning stations, boat ramps and more,” he said. “It’s pretty ingrained in just about everything we do.”
Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration totals for fiscal year 2018
This year, $1.1 billion in federal funds will be distributed nationwide for conservation and outdoor recreation through the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program. Of that, South Dakota will receive $18.2 million for fiscal year 2018. Here are the amounts the state has received for the five previous years:
• 2017: $17.8 million
• 2016: $16.6 million
• 2015: $19 million
• 2014: $17.8 million
• 2013: $13.9 million
Here is a breakdown of how South Dakota’s fiscal year 2018 appropriation compares to neighboring states:
• North Dakota: $15,508,402
• Minnesota: $35,900,740
• Nebraska: $17,316,696
• Iowa: $16,028,308
• Wyoming: $19,191,105
• Montana: $29,780,257
Source: U.S. Department of the Interior