Cuts proposed for Sidney ARS

by Renée Jean – Sidney Herald

Tatyana Rand holds up a vial containing specimens of adult and larval wheat stem sawfly during field days last year. A budget proposal for 2017 could cut that work in favor of climate change research.

Wheat stem sawflies cause more than $250 million in crop damage every year across the nation, including $80 million in damages to Montana. Meanwhile, there is only one USDA-ARS lab delving into their secrets, fighting back against the devastation they bring to wheat fields each year. That lab happens to be in Sidney, Mont., but the research could be disappearing with the stroke of a pen.

The president’s fiscal year 2017 budget proposes eliminating $1.3 million for insect research at the laboratory in Sidney, a figure that would encompass all the insect research being done there. In addition to the sawfly, that includes grasshoppers, a threat to agriculture throughout the west, and the Mormon cricket, also a problematic species.

The cut is actually a redirection of funding to other missions, according to officials with the USDA. Nationally, the Agriculture Research Lab has been asked to redirect a total of $66.3 million in existing funds to climate change, clean water, foreign animal diseases, antimicrobial resistance and avian influenza.

The Sidney facility’s insect research was among programs selected to make this shift in priorities happen. Under the proposal, two of the four scientists and two technicians in the insect unit would be moved to either the weed biocontrol program in the pest management unit at Sidney or to the Agricultural Systems Research Unit to focus on climate change. Two scientists and two technicians from the program would be relocated to other ARS laboratories outside of Montana.

Beth Redlin, spokesperson for the Sidney ARS unit, said they are aware of the proposed changes. “As members of the executive branch, we officially support the president’s budget,” she said.

Research Leader John Gaskin echoed her statement, adding that they must wait to see what is ultimately enacted by Congress.

Gaskin has highlighted pest research as among important achievements at the Sidney ARS facility in prior interviews.

“Our grasshopper work affects a lot of the western U.S. and wheatstem sawfly is now down into Nebraska and Colorado, so there is a big outreach for that,” he said at the time.

Senator Jon Tester, meanwhile has pressed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to explain the long-term plans for the research lab in Sidney.

Tester says he was assured the facility will remain fully staffed and operational, but that the focus of research could shift away from sawflies and other pests threatening crops in Montana and other areas of the nation.

“The folks in Sidney conduct cutting edge research for Montana’s family farmers and ranchers,” Tester said. “Sawflies pose a serious threat to our state’s No. 1 industry, and if we don’t have the best information at our fingertips, Montana farmers could take a big hit.”

Forty-one people work at Sidney’s Northern Plains Agriculture Research Lab, which includes scientists, technicians and other staff. Vilsack told Tester there are no plans to reduce their number.

A spokesman for Tester’s office said the legislator is committed to ensuring meaningful sawfly and pest research is prioritized before the committee passes an appropriations bill later this year.