High Fuel Prices Squeeze Montana State Agencies

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(Billings-Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) – State agencies in Montana that depend on vehicles are feeling the pinch of higher fuel prices. But agency officials say, for now, they are able to cover the higher costs even with their austere budgets.

Colonel Mike Tooley is chief of the Montana Highway Patrol. He says each day there are about 200 troopers out on the state’s roads and highways everyday. They are responsible for the bulk of the agency’s travel expenses at nearly 6 million miles a year.

“That’s where our work is done,” he says. “We need to be out on the highways to be visible and be available for the public, Tooley adds. “So if we have to make adjustments in other areas we’ll do that before we cut the amount of driving that the troopers do.”

Montana’s fuel prices lag behind the national average of $3.93/gallon. According to Gasbuddy.com, the average price of a gallon of gas in Montana Monday was $3.77. While that’s nearly 80-cent/gallon higher than a year ago it’s still below 2008 when gasoline topped $4/gallon.

Tooley says the MHP took a number of steps. This includes:  replacing its fleet of Ford Crown Victorias with Chevrolets orDodges. He says those vehicles are smaller and have new technology to deliver better fuel economy.

He hopes gas prices decline because the agency currently is down 20 troopers. Recruitment is taking place for those positions now.

The 2011 Montana Legislature also authorized MHP to hire 8 additional officers beginning July 1, 2011. Governor Brian Schweitzer signed the state’s main budget bill into law last week.

Tooley hopes to fill all of those vacancies and hopes fuel prices go down so he can do that.

“If this turns out that this is the new normal of above $3.50/gallon for gasoline then that’s when we have to take a look and prioritize on what we’re going to do without,”  Tooley says.

Another agency that depends on employees on the road is the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Its wardens are out patrolling on land and water.

Deputy Director Art Noonan says for now its wardens and biologists are able to be out in the field because of the lessons learned from 2008.

He says the agency purchased smaller, more fuel efficient pickups, state park employees now use electric carts, and the agency invested in a new telecommunications system to stay connected with its regional offices.

Montana FWP is funded by licenses and fees rather than from the state’s general fund.

Still, Noonan is worried if the current high fuel prices remain, the agency may need to rein in travel.

“I think probably the most direct place we would feel it would be we would have to stop allowing people to cover as much ground or to take as many trips in the process,” Noonan says. “So it would be program-wide ultimately if the price was sustained it would have to come from somewhere.”

Montana is a destination for anglers because of its blue-ribbon trout streams and the management emphasis on wild trout rather than hatchery-raised fish.

The state also draws hunters for its abundant wildlife, including its big game:  elk, bison, or wolves.

Noonan adds state park officials are anticipating higher visitation at state park sites for the upcoming summer season. They expect higher fuel prices may keep Montana’s recreating closer to home this summer.