BUFFALO — Since its formation in 2005, the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust has dedicated millions of dollars to invasive species treatments, stream bank stabilization projects and fish barrier removals.
But there’s one goal the program has never reached, according to Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Executive Director Bob Budd: being fully funded at a level of $200 million, as stipulated by state statute. If fully funded, the trust fund would generate $8 to $10 million annually to be used on projects across the state, Budd said.
Currently, the trust fund sits at $115 million, according to Budd. But a one-time influx of funds into the state, courtesy of federal COVID-19 relief funding, may allow the Legislature to provide an infusion of cash that will fully fund the trust fund for the first time in its existence.
During a meeting of the trust fund board and the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Natural Resource Funding Committee in Buffalo Tuesday, legislators expressed interest in fully funding the trust.
“I would say right now, there is an appetite in increasing that fund,” Rep. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, said. “I think we have an opportunity with some one-time funds… (and) there is a likelihood we could get something going in that direction.”
“It’s a one-time infusion of funds that would pay permanent dividends to the state of Wyoming,” Senator Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, said of fully funding the trust. “…I do think it’s ripe for discussion given our current fiscal picture for the state.”
Funded by interest earned on a permanent account, donations and legislative appropriation, the purpose of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust is to enhance and conserve wildlife habitat and natural resources throughout the state. Any project designed to improve wildlife habitat or natural resources is eligible for funding.
The trust is an independent state agency managed by a nine-person citizen board, with Sheridan County Commissioner Christi Haswell representing the interests of Sheridan and Johnson counties. Board members are appointed by Governor Mark Gordon from each of the state’s nine judicial districts and reflect a variety of backgrounds including agriculture, industry, sportsmen and tourism.
In Sheridan and Johnson counties alone, the trust has funded $2.51 million in projects in the last four years, and $6.51 million since 2007, according to the trust’s website. Recent local projects include the chemical treatment of invasive grasses in walk-in areas in Sheridan County, stream stabilization and structural enhancements in the Tongue River near Dayton, and a research project to study and delineate mule deer movement in Sheridan County.
Hicks, who serves on the Senate’s Appropriations Committee, said in addition to the federal American Rescue Plan dollars, the state is seeing a higher return on investments than expected, along with strong oil prices. The state may see an infusion of cash by the end of the year, and there may not be a better time to fully fund the trust, Hicks said.
Budd said fully funding the trust would provide financial certainty and security for the organization, which would encourage further investment in necessary projects throughout the state.
“For example, if we’re able to say… that we have removed all impediments for warm-water fish to get from the Missouri River into historic spawning ranges, that is a major statement ecologically that we have dealt with the issues affecting those species, and we haven’t done that yet,” Budd said. “We’ve done more than most, but we have not done a lot of the things we still could do.”
Since the trust funds construction projects across the state, Hicks pitched fully funding the trust as a way to positively impact the state’s economy.
“It’s about jobs, folks,” Hicks said. “…This is about the economy of Wyoming and an investment in future generations. So I think that’s the way we need to couch this discussion. It’s not just about this sage-grouse lek here or this fish ladder there, it’s about future economic opportunity for Wyoming to be a natural-resource-based economy.”
The decision to fully fund the trust is something that will need to be decided on the legislative level in the coming months, according to Hicks, but the idea was received warmly by the legislators in attendance and by citizens like Chris McBarnes of Buffalo.
“I think Senator Hicks hit the nail on the head when he said infusing this one-time cash infusion into the trust will stabilize the economy, support small business and keep Wyoming in a competitive position of growing jobs that will support the middle class,” McBarnes said. “As a taxpayer, I want you to know I support that 100%.”