Budget constraints on a federal level are resulting in the winter closure of the DuPont Nature Center in Milford, from Nov. 1 until March 1.

Budget constraints on a federal level are resulting in the winter closure of the DuPont Nature Center in Milford, from Nov. 1 until March 1.

The DuPont Nature Center, which falls under the category of aquatic resource education, is almost entirely funded by federal funds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sport Fish Restoration Program.

Monies for the federal fund come from a variety of consumer taxes on items related to sport fishing and fishery equipment throughout the entire country. Those taxes are received by the U.S. Treasury, then given to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Sport Fish Restoration Program, which is then divvied up into individual state appropriations determined by a variety of state characteristics, including state size, population and number of fishing licenses purchased.

In Fiscal Year 2013, Delaware received $3,598,719 in funds from the Sport Fish Restoration Program, of which up to 15 percent, or $539,807, may be used to support aquatic resource education programs, including facilities like the DuPont Nature Center and the Aquatic Resource Education Center in Smyrna. The apportionment for 2013 was $100,000 more than 2012.

Exact state apportionments for Fiscal Year 2014 have not yet been released.

“For the first time in years, that pot of money is smaller,” said Gary Kreamer, immediate supervisor of the DuPont Nature Center and training/education administrator at the Aquatic Resources Education Center. “In terms of impact on the aquatic resource education program share of funding, we’re facing a roughly $75,000 short-fall compared to last year.”

The Aquatic Resources Education Center in Smyrna is also funded by the same federal grant money. Kreamer said the decreased budget is resulting in the need to cut about 1,500 seasonal hours per year, or about 15 percent of the budget, to operate these centers.

Kreamer said he has had to make cuts across the board in seasonal employees, to avoid making cuts during the busier summer months.

“The cost of operating facilities doesn’t tend to go down and full-time salaries will not go down. Our only wiggle room in trying to make up the deficit is to look at other areas of spending – like seasonal staffing and contractual expenses,” Kreamer said. “We look at numbers of visitors and programs, and the low period is November to February. We’re not cutting back during the busy season, and we’re trying to give a little more help there because that keeps amping up.”

While the winter months are the slowest for the DuPont Nature Center’s visitor and program counts, with an average of less than 200 visitors and one program per month from November to February, according to the DuPont Nature Center’s most recent annual data summary, the concern from current employees and volunteers is that they will be losing a sense of continuity if the doors are completely closed during the winter months.

“You lose that continuity when you’re not seeing these people on a regular basis and they may find something else and we may not get them back [as volunteers or visitors] as a result of something like this,” said volunteer Laura Madara. “I’d really like to see them change their minds and rethink this. I look forward to being able to work down there in the winter time when I have this time available, and for the public, they’re not going to be able to get in there and take a look at the place like they have the last couple winters.”

The DuPont Nature Center is normally open on Wednesdays and Saturdays to accommodate winter visitors, host volunteer orientations, seasonal displays and programs as well as the Friends of the DuPont Nature Center’s annual benefit and fundraiser, said DuPont Nature Center Manager Dawn Webb.

The center functions with one full-time staff member, two part-time seasonal employees and a third employee who also works at the Smyrna center. The two part-time seasonal employees specifically working at the DuPont Nature Center will be laid off for the winter months, and one has already found a new job.

“There’s a lot of this going on across the country with programs like ours, where hard decisions have to be made,” Kreamer said. “The trends we’re seeing and the impacts of that are not just in Delaware, it’s really across the country. When there’s less federal money, the states really don’t have it to make up the difference in this economy.”

“Even with those cuts that we’re making, I’ve just agonized over them because there’s people involved, too,” Kreamer continued. “The employees have been very loyal. It’s been a very hard thing all around. It was not an easy decision to make.”

While the center will be closed for four months, aquatic specimens housed at the facility are in need of relocation. Webb and DuPont Nature Center employee Colleen Holstein recently released approximately 50 specimens of fish and shellfish into the Delaware Bay. Several horseshoe crabs and two diamondback terrapins will go to the St. Jones Reserve south of Dover this week.

The center will reopen March 1, with its first program, a volunteer orientation and work day, planned for March 15.