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The federal wildlife program in the news this month for being violated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has pumped more than $400 million into the state's coffers over the past 20 years and millions more since its inception in 1937, according to records kept by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

Jim Hodgson, assistant regional director for the agency's Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration programs, said the hunter-generated Pittman-Robertson Act grants now being withheld from the DNR are the same as those tapped for decades to help create and maintain a huge percentage of every Minnesota public wildlife area. Among them, the purchase of hunting lands as large and as popular as the 39,000-acre Mille Lacs Wildlife Management Area south of Onamia. In all, DNR has used Pittman-Robertson funds to build more than 650 square miles of public hunting land.

Hodgson was involved earlier this month in the decision to hold back $22 million in Pittman-Robertson grant money from the DNR. According to an Aug. 7 letter written by FWS Acting Regional Director Chuck Traxler, the financial "hold" was ordered for logging-related violations. Inside the FWS, the sanction is believed to be the first of its kind against any of the eight Midwest states receiving wildlife habitat grants since the late 1930s. Traxler wrote in his letter that the action was taken to ensure that Minnesota complies with federal environmental laws when selling timber on state hunting lands.

"Both sides are taking it very seriously in getting it corrected as soon as possible,'' Hodgson said. "Do we have a date we are shooting for? No, not yet.''

DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen and top members of her staff attended FWS compliance checks Monday and Tuesday at Mille Lacs and at Whitewater Wildlife Management Area, 30 miles east of Rochester. As a follow-up, there's an office meeting scheduled for next Monday between the two agencies.

Specifically, Traxler has said the DNR acknowledged that it didn't provide pre-sale documentation to ensure cuttings on wildlife lands complied with the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. The pre-sale conditions were imposed after some of the DNR's own wildlife managers complained publicly that logging on wildlife management areas and aquatic management areas was being controlled by DNR's Forestry Division to help the forest products industry.

According to the Code of Federal Regulations, the purpose of Pittman-Robertson is to enhance populations and habitats of wild birds and mammals and allow opportunities for hunting, trapping, bird-watching, nature photography, the study of natural phenomena and other outdoors activities. Under grant provisions, timber harvest is allowed as a tool for managing wildlife habitat, not for the sake of commerce.

Strommen has said the current hold on $22 million in Pittman-Robertson grants won't cause a budgeting problem at the DNR. She said her agency manages wildlife lands for wildlife purposes and has zero concerns about providing documentation sought by FWS to resolve the case.

According to the federal agency's records, Minnesota received its first annual Pittman-Robertson grant in 1939 in the amount of $26,352. Based on the state's relatively high volume of hunting license sales and its relatively expansive geography, Minnesota has received far more money from the program than many other states. To manage the constant flow, DNR's Fish and Wildlife Division employs a full-time federal grant specialist, Heather Kieweg, whose title is "federal assistance coordinator.''

According to federal records, Pittman-Robertson grants to Minnesota since 2004 have surpassed $403.6 million. In the Wildlife Restoration Act's most recent grant period of 2023, for instance, the DNR nearly matched Michigan as the nation's sixth-largest recipient of Pittman-Robertson dollars. Michigan's sum of $34,693,000 edged Minnesota's apportionment of $34,417,000 for the same year, records show. Texas and Alaska topped the list with more than $50 million each, and Wisconsin ranked 10th with $33.7 million.

But as Hodgson explained, FWS is withholding $17.55 million of the DNR's latest award. In addition, FWS put a hold on $4.06 million of unspent Pittman-Robertson grant money previously apportioned to the DNR. States are given several years to spend the money on approved projects. Funds can be used for land acquisition, wildlife research, wildlife population surveys, facilities to improve public access, data collection to guide and direct hunting regulations, and for equipment, goods and services to restore, rehabilitate or improve lands and waters as wildlife habitat.

Funding for the program is mainly derived from federal excise taxes on firearms and ammunition, collected at the manufacturing level. The overall size of the Pittman-Robertson pie varies from year to year depending on demand for those goods. Meanwhile, distribution of the money is formulated by the geographic size of each state and each state's annual volume of hunting license sales. Since geographic size is static, it's important for states to maintain or increase license sales.

For individual projects or work activities to be eligible for the funding, states must contribute 25% of the cost. The 75-to-25 ratio was established by the congressional authors of Key Pittman of Nevada and Absalom Willis Robertson of Virginia. The landmark conservation act received a companion program in 1950 when federal lawmakers adopted the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act based on fishing industry equipment sales, gas taxes paid by boat owners and state sales of fishing licenses. In the past 20 years alone, the Minnesota DNR has received $324.3 million in Dingell-Johnson grants for fishery projects, boating access, aquatic education and more. Both programs are administered by FWS.

According to a previous snapshot of DNR finances, 28% of all receipts and transfers into Minnesota's all-important Game and Fish Fund in 2020 came from Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson grants. The sum of those grants in 2020 was $35.9 million.