Fortymile caribou

These caribou bulls were photographed on a ridge close to the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks. Wildlife viewers and photographers should come prepared for challenging driving conditions and sudden weather changes. (Photo ©John Wyman, ADF&G)

In a video statement released Monday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced his final actions on the FY2020 state operating budget. While the governor stood by the majority of his cuts, he restored some of the items that he formerly vetoed.

For the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, this means that the $300,000 state matching grant for federal funds from the Pittman-Robertson program remains intact. On the other hand, the department will still see a loss of roughly $800,000 for fisheries management surveys and projects in the Central, Southeast and Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim regions. A cut of another $400,000 will see the divisions of habitat and subsistence research lose their directors and $140,000 was cut from the division of wildlife conservation for special area management.

To explain the impacts of these cuts, as well as some of the restored funding for the department, ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Land spoke with the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on Thursday.

Vincent-Lang called the restoration of the Pittman-Robertson matching grant a “big deal.”

The Pittman-Robertson Act was signed into law in 1937 and established a roughly 10% excise tax on the sale of hunting gear such as guns and ammunition. The tax goes into a separate fund that is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and is used for various wildlife conservation projects. A state must provide a 25% match in order to receive federal dollars from the fund.

According to Vincent-Lang, over the past three to four years, the state has missed out on an estimated $5 million-$6 million in federal funds, because it did not provide a match. This, he said, is something the department is trying to focus on.

“We’ve been actively putting in place a strategy to prevent us reverting more of those funds in the future,” he said.

Vincent-Lang said that the Pittman-Robertson funds are used for two things: stock assessments/game management and increasing hunter access. With regard to access, he said that over the next few years, the department plans to use funds for projects including things like bolstering airstrips and restoring trails and parking lots.

In the fiscal year 2018, projects that Pittman-Robertson funds supported include things like statewide caribou surveys. For that project, the state put up roughly $440,000 and received $1.32 million in federal dollars. Surveys for moose, Dall sheep, wolves, deer, migratory birds and other various game populations were also funded through seeking matching Pittman-Robertson funds.

“I can’t begin to express the gratitude I have to the governor’s office to recognizing the value of Pittman-Robertson funds to our state,“ Vincent-Lang said. “It means a lot to the hunters across the state and to the department.”

Vincent-Lang added that the department is currently seeking partners to assist in providing funding in order to unlock more federal dollars from this fund.

“We committed last year to work with user groups across the state to use the funds on what they think are good ideas,” he said.

After the governor initially vetoed the $300,000 state grant, local hunting advocates were pleased to hear that this line item in the budget was restored. Mark Richards, vice chair of the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee, said that Resident Hunters of Alaska — an advocacy group for which he serves as executive director — was particularly concerned about the possible loss of these funds. He described hunting as a “pay to play system.”

“I know that our organization pushed him on that,” Richards said. “As far as Resident Hunters of Alaska looks at it, that’s our money. We pay taxes on fire arms and ammunition, bows, arrows, sporting equipment.”

On the subject of the cuts that have been made to fisheries management across various parts of the state, Richards was less positive. He noted that he doesn’t speak for the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee as a whole, but his opinion was that “we’re sorry to see that money cut.” By cutting funds for surveys and assessments, Richards said, the department is providing itself less information with which to effectively manage.

This was a sentiment that was echoed by Reed Morisky, chair of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, who said that the cuts will have an impact on how the board makes its decisions.

“I — and I’m sure other board members — completely understand that reduced funding for rumination and study for the department of fish and game will make their job harder with respect to understanding what’s going on out there with the fisheries,” Morisky said. “They’ll just have less information and so they’ll have to manage more conservatively — and in some cases much more conservatively.”

This could impact things like season length and allocation.

“For example, if the department is not comfortable with making a recommendation for how many fish can you take in this particular area, then a season might be shortened,” he said. “Any time, you’re talking about shortening a season … someone will suffer in that instance.”

Morisky said that, historically speaking, the cuts are not drastic — but any reduction in funding stands to potentially impact fishermen.

“It’s going to affect someone’s fishery if you cut back on the preseason or even in-season counting,” he said. “They won’t know if a run’s doing well or poorly. A lot of times they’re going to have to use past information or work with fishermen and processors — but you can only get so far that way.”

On the subject of the fisheries management cuts, however, Vincent-Lang sounded optimistic. He said that the cuts are mild in comparison to those made to other state departments and said he sees them as “not quite reaching the threshold that they’ll have an impact on our management.”

He did however, acknowledge that the department has seen its budget continually reduced over the past few years, and added that evaluations on how to “minimize impacts” are still taking place.

For example, one of the items vetoed was $300,000 that was allocated for various projects in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region. Vincent-Lang said that the department is in the process of evaluating which items are the “lowest priority projects” to cut.

Half a million dollars for fisheries management surveys in the Central and Southeast regions is also being cut. According to Vincent-Lang: In the Yukon Management Area, sonar surveys for Chinook “might have shorter duration run-times”; Bering sea juvenile Chinook surveys “might be cut short”; in Bristol Bay, a salmon counting tower will be lost; in northern Cook Inlet, the department “lost a couple of sockeye weirs.”

Despite these losses, Vincent-Lang maintained that things like in-season management and private-public partnerships will be able to fill in the gaps. This optimism was not shared by Reed Morisky, who said that in-season descion making will prompt “lots of public criticism.”

It’s not just hunters and fishermen who stand to be impacted. Another vetoed line item that remains cut was $140,000 from the Division of Wildlife Conservation for Special Area Management. Vincent-Lang said this refers to the management of critical habitat areas and wildlife sanctuaries. Among them is Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge.

“We lost the general fund money that was going into those programs to fund nonhunting activities. In response, I’ve directed that staff and that division to look for other funding sources for nonhunting activities,” he said. “It’s still a question mark, but I think there’s funding sources out there. I think there’s lots of opportunities to write grants to fund those opportunities.”

Overall, Vincent-Lang said the governor “clearly recognized the value of the dollars you get back” from the activities that ADF&G facilitates.

Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.