STEVENSVILLE – “Uncertainty” is a word that Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge manager Tom Reed is getting to know well this spring.
As the federal government struggles to find the $85 billion in budget cuts known as sequestration, Reed is finding himself juggling directives as he focuses on this summer’s field season.
“It’s like this dark sky keeps getting closer and closer, but we’re not exactly sure what it’s going to bring,” he said.
On the same week that Congress passed legislation to end furloughs of air traffic controllers after
being deluged by complaints, Reed was creatively trying to come up with plans to retain a Youth Conservation Corps crew and
find a way to retain scheduled public events without offering his employees any additional pay for hosting them.
The refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which falls under the Department of Interior. The sequester cut about $880 million for the department’s budget.
The Bitterroot Valley refuge’s budget took a 6.2 percent cut as a result.
But the cuts don’t stop there.
“Agencies are holding monies back right now because of the unclarity of the situation,” he said. “Right now, our budget has been cut by 10 percent.”
What that means is Reed can’t buy the pipe that the refuge had planned to install this year. And it can’t hire the crew leader it needs
to bring on the Youth Conservation Corps crews that have been counted on to get much of the field work completed over the past couple of years.
“I was just getting ready to go out and buy the pipe we had planned to put in to carry water to the ponds,” he said. “I thought I had about $15,000 in discretionary funds, but learned that with the cuts I had about half of that.”
“We want to get that pipe in the ground soon,” Reed said. “It’s something that takes some time to get accomplished.”
Region wide, Reed said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently has 37 vacant positions that can’t be filled because of a hiring freeze. On top of that, seasonal positions aren’t being filled.
That means Reed can’t hire a YCC crew coordinator at this point.
“I’m trying to get creative and maybe find a student intern to fill that position,” he said. “I’m looking at a number of options right now.”
Wendy Wigert of the Montana Youth Conservation Corps said that organization is dealing with a good deal of uncertainty about what sequestration will mean over the long run.
“Right now, we’re feeling comfortable but cautious for this field season knowing that people are still not 100 percent sure how their budgets will be impacted,” she said.
Since most of the organization’s federal funding was approved last year, Wigert said the impacts could get worse as time goes on.
“We’re probably worried more about next year,” she said. “The
10-year impacts could be devastating for us.”
In anticipation of a slower field season this summer, Wigert said the organization scaled back five positions to a total of 130.
“The biggest issue that people are bringing up right now is they just don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I wish they would at least tell us what they are going to do. We’re all in this together. We recognize there is a federal debt that needs to be addressed.
“It’s not like the Montana Youth Conservation Corps is going to go away and neither are the refuges,” Wigert said. “This issue is that when we don’t know what the cuts are going to be, then we can’t respond to them.”