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Snowbird • The new director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Saturday that while hunters and environmentalists fight over things such as wolf delisting, proposed major cuts to long-established conservation plans could have much more dire consequences.

Dan Ashe said an anti-regulatory and deficit cutting mood in the U.S. House of Representatives toward environmental programs could close refuges and dismantle key wildlife conservation programs.

"Billions of dollars for conservation is at risk," said Ashe, who was attending the annual Outdoor Writers Association of America Conference at Snowbird. "We should stop arguing about marginal conservation issues and rally the community of all our member-based conservation organizations to pay attention and make this the central issue of our time."

Tuesday, the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee proposed cutting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service budget for 2012 by $305 million, a 22 percent hit and a half-billion dollars less than proposed by President Barack Obama.

If that were to take effect, Ashe said, important conservation programs such as the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the operating budget for federal refuges and the Cooperative Endangered Species fund would be virtually eliminated. Some refuges might be left unstaffed.

Cuts could have major effects on federal fish hatcheries in Utah, as well as smaller refuges such as Fish Springs and Ouray.

The hit on the wetlands act is particularly significant, because it requires matches from states or conservation groups, usually on a three-to-one basis. That means a $27 million reduction in the federal funding part of the program translates to an overall $81 million loss.

Ashe said he was not especially concerned about the precedent Congress recently set when it delisted Rocky Mountain wolves in Idaho and Montana.

"What they [Congress] did was codified our rule," he said. "They didn't change or modify it. They stood behind our delisting rule. ... The Fish and Wildlife Service was stuck between two federal judges and could not go forward or backward. Congress stepped in and gave us the necessary help to get past the impasse. They endorse scientifically-based delisting."

But he said that if the wolf precedent turns into more efforts to have Congress pass judgment on which species should be listed or delisted as endangered species, that would be of significant concern.

The longtime professional wildlife manager and Fish and Wildlife Service scientist is the 16th director of the agency. He said he would like to be remembered as someone who brought professionalism and integrity to the job. He has been director for just over a week.

"I would like us to be a voice of reason in a larger community who can bring the community together around some of these divisive issues," he said. "We would like to be a bridge between the environmental and fishing and hunting communities, a place where those communities can come together and not focus where we disagree."

He listed financial concerns and climate change as the largest challenges his agency is facing.

His appointment as director drew praise from conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited.

"I have known and worked with Dan for more than 15 years," said Dale Hall, CEO of Ducks Unlimited. "He's a strong supporter of wildlife resources, an avid outdoorsman and a committed conservationist."