Thank-you, Mr. Chairman, for calling this important hearing on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's budget. The activities of the Fish and Wildlife Service have a tremendous impact on my state and I appreciate the opportunity to discuss some important funding issues with our only witness today, the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Steve Williams.
First, I was pleased to hear from Director Williams that the Service will move ahead with its final rule to down-list the gray wolf to threatened status. Gray wolf recovery efforts have been a success. Wolf populations in the Northern Rockies are now healthy and growing. It just makes sense to implement the Endangered Species Act as intended, which means removing the wolf from the list of threatened and endangered species, and returning management control over the wolf back to the states.
I was particularly pleased that the final rule will allow for increased management flexibility for state and federal wildlife officials in order to reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock. However, Montanans are anxious to begin managing the wolf themselves. Because the gray wolf recovery program has been such a success, and wolf populations are so healthy, we've seen more and more wolves in Montana. This raises more and more concerns about livestock depredations, or attacks on domestic pets. It's past time for Montana to take over full management responsibility for the wolf. That means de-listing the wolf in Montana and/or the Northern Rockies region, or providing some other regulatory mechanism that would allow this to happen.
Montana has developed a wolf management plan that, from what I understand, is very good. Yet, Montana has to wait as the Service moves forward with a proposed plan to delist the wolf nation-wide. The Northern Rockies, and a few other states such as Minnesota, have born the brunt of wolf recovery efforts. We have healthy populations right now. I don't see why we can't move forward to delist the wolf in these areas where we have healthy populations, so that the states can have the flexibility and authority that they need to best manage wolf populations for the benefit of their citizens.
I know that Montana has concerns about the financial costs of assuming management of the wolf, and that is a legitimate concern. This is an issue that I'd like to continue to explore with the Service as we move towards giving management of the wolf back to Montana.
In general, Mr. Williams, I'd like to raise several concerns with you about the status of Fish and Wildlife funding and staffing levels in Montana and Region 6. During your confirmation hearing, I asked you to look into the fact that Montana seems to have received the very, very short end of the stick when it comes to the Fish and Wildlife Service's staffing and budget. I asked your immediate supervisor, Craig Manson, and the Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Lynn Scarlett, the same thing. Everyone promised to look into this problem. So far, nothing has happened. I received a short note from Ms. Scarlett over a year ago, telling me that the situation warranted a closer look by the Service and the Department of Interior, but again, nothing has happened.
Mr. Chairman, this situation is getting out of hand. Montana has only 18 permanent and 5 one-year term Fish and Wildlife Service ecological services employees. That's it, for the entire state. To cover millions of acres of Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other federal lands, and countless activities that occur across the state on private and state lands.
Activities in Montana that could potentially or actually impact endangered, threatened or other sensitive species include: timber harvests and hazardous fuels reduction projects, irrigation development, coal mine development and expansion, new or expanded coal and gas fired power plants, new hyrdoelectric generating facilities, highway projects, airport facilities, sewage treatment plants and cellular tower placements. Many if not all of these activities could require some level of consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service, to address or reduce impacts to fish and wildlife.
I am very concerned when I hear that the Service may not be able to meet all of the demands placed upon it just by other federal agencies, particularly by the Forest Service. We're working hard in Montana to preserve natural resource jobs, particularly jobs in Montana's timber industry. It is imperative that the Service provide adequate staff to assist the Forest Service in its efforts to manage timber resources, reduce hazardous fuels in our National Forests, and protect and enhance habitat for endangered and threatened species.
Mr. Chairman, Montana is a growing state, and we're trying hard to continue to grow our economy, to provide more and better paying jobs for the citizens of our state. That means more projects, more improvements, more activity, and more potential for conflicts with fish and wildlife recovery goals.
As Montanans, we prize our first-class landscapes, our pristine rivers and streams. We're proud of our outdoor heritage and our abundant fish and wildlife. We don't believe that economic growth and protecting fish and wildlife and their habitat are mutually exclusive goals. Our farmers and ranchers are good stewards of their lands.
But, a lack of resources has made it awfully hard for the Fish and Wildlife Service to respond in a proactive way to Montanans' needs or the needs of our fish and wildlife populations. There's only so much that 18 full-time, permanent employees can do, in a state the size of Montana, with as many endangered, threatened and other sensitive species that we have, including grizzly bears, wolves, lynx, bull trout, sage grouse, prairie dogs, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, fluvial arctic grayling, sturgeon, and the list goes on. We need more people; that's just common sense.
More people means important federal, state and private sector projects more forward more quickly, more efficiently, and that potential problems are addressed up front. More people means the Service can work more pro-actively with the state and local land-owners on species conservation efforts, to avoid the need to list a particular species, or to help land-owners cope with the presence of an endangered or threatened species on their property. For instance, a few Service employees have done wonderful things working with ranchers and local citizens along the Blackfoot River in Montana to improve habitat for bull trout.
The needed investment by the Department of Interior and the Service in these kinds of efforts is minimal when compared to the long-term benefits to species and to the citizens of this country, in terms of enhanced wildlife habitat, healthier forests, reduced conflicts, continued economic growth, and fewer lawsuits.
My sense that the state of Montana has been treated unfairly here only grows when I look at the uneven distribution of Service staff and resources in other states and regions, including three new offices and over 90 ecological services employees in Oregon, and well over 100 ecological services employees in the State of Washington. This difference in staffing levels is just striking. I would like to explore this issue further with Director Williams.
Mr. Chairman, I have worked hard in the past to propose common sense reforms to the ESA, in order to help the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies implement the Act more effectively, and with greater sensitivity to the needs of private landowners and states. I was proud of these efforts and the efforts of many of my colleagues on this Committee. But, no matter what may or may not happen with ESA reform this Congress or in any other Congress, we have to adequately fund the Fish and Wildlife Service, and we have to put adequate staff where it's needed the most.
I am pleased that the Administration has proposed overall increases in the Fish and Wildlife Service's budget for fiscal year 2004 over previous budget requests. However, I believe we can do much more, and I will explore this more specifically with Director Williams in the questions I submit for the record.
Thank you again Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing; and thank you, Director Williams, for taking the time to testify today.