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Nationwide gun sales net major funding for Alaska wildlife conservation projects

WASHINGTON — Alaska's Department of Fish and Game has been working to spend an unusual boost in federal dollars that comes from Americans buying more guns and ammunition in recent years.

This year, the federal government is offering Alaska $33 million, the Interior Department announced earlier this week. The amount is more than double what the state got in 2012, after which the gun-tax-driven funding began to climb.

To get the money, the state has to kick in a 25 percent match — an ask too steep in the last two years, when the state has had to pass up $3.3 million in federal dollars without the available matching money, according to Maria Gladziszewski, deputy director of the state's Division of Wildlife Conservation. This year, the state hopes to find a way to take on the full amount, she said.

The money comes at the direction of the Pittman-Robertson Act, a 1937 law that establishes a firearms tax and then gives that money to the Interior Department to send back to states for wildlife conservation projects. The funding is apportioned based on states' physical area and the number of paid license holders. Alaska's haul is second only to Texas, which will be offered $36.7 million in fiscal year 2018. The states get two years to spend the funds.

The state's 25 percent match for the funds comes from hunting license fees. The state Legislature voted in 2016 to increase those fees, at the encouragement of hunters, to get access to the rising amount of available funds.

The license fee increase was the first since 1992, boosting hunting, fishing and trapping fees 80 percent for residents and 200 percent more for nonresidents.

Unprecedented gun and ammunition sales in recent years led to a more than 100 percent jump in wildlife restoration funds available through the so-called "Pittman-Robertson" accounts.

But the amount of money available does fluctuate, Gladziszewski said. It depends on the federal intake of gun excise taxes each year, the apportionment of that to states from the Interior Department, and then on the state's own appropriations.

Given that the nationwide boost in gun sales during the Obama administration may not continue, Gladziszewski said the department can't use the money to create permanent positions. Instead, they have to find yearly projects to fund.

Nevertheless, Gladziszewski called Pittman-Robertson a "brilliant model of funding for wildlife conservation for the last 80 years."

The increase in funding has already "lasted longer than anyone thought it would last," Gladziszewski said. "It's not funding that we could count on to ramp up our permanent staffing." Instead, the agency plans to spend the money on research and land management, such as adding trails and roads for hunters — or anyone — to access, she said.

Gladziszewski said that she expects to be able to use all of the federal funding the Interior Department announced Tuesday. The Legislature has made clear it "doesn't want us to revert any money" back to the federal coffers this year, Gladziszewski said. "We are doing our best to obligate all we can."

The federal funds come as a result of the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act, which along with its boating counterpart, the Dingell-Johnson Act, has taken in more than $20 billion since inception, according to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The tax charges 11 percent of the wholesale price of long guns and 10 percent for handguns. The money can be used for research, surveys, management and buying and leasing land. Any unspent federal funds go to the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, used to fund new waterfowl refuges.

"Alaska sportsmen and women are some of our best conservationists and they contribute billions of dollars toward wildlife conservation and sportsmen access every year through the Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Acts," Zinke said. "Every time a firearm, fishing pole, hook, bullet, motor boat or boat fuel is sold, part of that cost goes to fund conservation. The best way to increase funding for conservation and sportsmen access is to increase the number of hunters and anglers in our woods and waters," he said.

The state sells around 600,000 resident and nonresident hunting, fishing and trapping licenses each year.