Underfunding Cripples U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System

WASHINGTON, DC, March 12, 2007 (ENS) - In an attempt to cope with a huge budget backlog, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is cutting and redeploying staff in the National Wildlife Refuge System across the Southwest and the Pacific Regions. Reductions in services will impact refuges in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Guam and several Pacific islands.

As a result of the cuts, environmental education programs for school children will be eliminated, there will be cuts in endangered species recovery programs, habitat management and law enforcement will be diminished.

In the face of "increasing operating costs and increasing conservation needs," Chris Pease, chief of National Wildlife Refuges in the Southwest says the region will be eliminating 38 positions over the next three years.

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Bobcat on New Mexico's Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge (Photo courtesy USFWS)
The Southwest workforce plan consists of a mix of cost-savings measures over a three year period to obtain a budget ratio of 80 percent salary to 20 percent operating expenditures. "Permanent staff reductions are planned as personnel costs consume a hefty portion of the budget," Pease said.

Staff reductions will occur through retirement, attrition and relocation, and staffing reductions will also occur in the Regional Office located in Albuquerque with the savings to be directed to the field stations, Pease explained.

These reductions come on top of the 22 positions left vacant since 2004. The plan further states that "each subsequent year beyond Fiscal Year 2009 may require annual reductions of five to seven positions just to cover cost of living increases."

The Pacific region contains 64 national wildlife refuges covering more than 3.5 million acres of public land and waters.

According to the workforce plan that outlines the cuts, the Pacific region is leaving 32 positions vacant and will eliminate another 17 jobs by fiscal year 2009, resulting in a total of 49 eliminated positions. Because of these staffing cuts, 28 refuges, or 44 percent of the refuges in the region, will remain completely unstaffed and 21 refuges, or one-third of the refuges in the region, will experience further reductions.

The plan calls for the elimination of almost a quarter of the biologists in the Pacific region, crippling the wildlife agency's ability to monitor and restore wildlife populations. One quarter of the staff that actively manages habitat will also be eliminated, causing over 40 invasive species control projects and wetland restoration projects to be reduced or abolished outright.

Only six full-time law enforcement staff will remain in the entire Pacific region.

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The Columbia National Wildlife Refuge is situated within the Columbia Basin of central Washington (Photo courtesy USFWS)
Since 2001, funding for the National Wildlife Refuge System has increased from $300 million to $383 million in fiscal year 2006, but the increase has been directed to specific priorities such as invasive species control, borderland security and maintenance needs at specific refuges, said Pease.

"Our national wildlife refuges are literally crumbling before our eyes. Across the country we're seeing how the culmination of years of negligent funding devastates these special places," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.

"The only solution to bolster and reinvigorate the country's irreplaceable wildlife refuge system is to provide adequate funding that is commensurate with the nationally significant benefits these lands provide to the American people," Schlickeisen said. "At the same time President [George W.] Bush is championing funds for our national parks, he should also push for adequate funding of another national treasure, the national wildlife refuges."

Refuges are currently managed at a cost of less than $4 per acre. By comparison, the National Park System receives more than $20 per acre for management.

Alarm bells warning of the funding crisis have been ringing for years. "The Refuge System already suffers from a crippling $3 billion backlog in top priority operations and maintenance needs," Michael Woodbridge, director of government affairs for the nonprofit National Wildlife Refuge Association told a Congressional hearing in July 2006. "Without modest funding increases from Congress, refuges will continue closing their gates, and the public will be the ones who pay the price."

Staff member conducts an environmental education session at Oklahoma's Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by J. and K. Hollingsworth courtesy USFWS)
The Southwest Region's workforce plan is part of larger effort nationally to strategically manage the nation's Refuge System. Each regional office is tasked with finding ways to balance salary and operational costs to maintain workable ratios. The other regions have not yet issued their workforce plans.

"If the Service and the Refuge System do not act decisively now, it will spend the next few years reacting," said Pease. "By instituting these cost-saving measures, we can better address our conservation mission."

The Southwest Region includes 45 refuges located in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas and contains 2.86 million acres of habitat that attracts a variety of wildlife. These refuges are part of the larger National Wildlife Refuge System that is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Altogether, there are 547 refuges with nearly 100 million acres.

Under the new plan, Southwest refuges will be classified into one of three tiers based on each refuge's habitat management needs, visitation, and law enforcement requirements.

"We've created three strategic tiers of refuges which clarifies the roles that individual refuges play in terms of habitat management, visitation, and law enforcement needs, and have structured the staffing needs accordingly," said Pease.

Tier 1 is composed of focus refuges, which tend to have the largest landholdings, diverse habitats, rare fish and wildlife species and offer extensive visitor services programs. They will be expected to have a full range of staff in a variety of disciplines and will support Tier 2 and Tier 3 stations.

Tier 2 are the refuges targeted for staff reductions although some staff will remain to conduct basic refuge management and maintenance. Some visitor services will be offered such as wildlife viewing and interpretation and special events.

Tier 3 are the unstaffed refuges and tend to be of a size that does not require extensive habitat manipulation to achieve wildlife objectives. While the refuges may be opened for visitors for special events or for self-directed tours, there will not be staff on-site. Staff from a neighboring Tier 1 or 2 refuge will manage these refuges.

Four refuges will be grouped into two complexes, and maintenance teams will be used to complete small construction projects.

"We want to ensure a natural resource legacy for future generations. Regardless of future budget outcomes, these strategic decisions to better manage the workforce and prioritize refuge needs over the next three years are important to accomplishing the mission of the refuge System," said Pease.

Changes by State:

In Arizona, Focus Refuges, Tier 1, are Buenos Aires, Cabeza Prieta, Kofa/Imperial and Bill Williams. Kofa and Imperial will be combined into a complex and share many of the same staff. San Bernardino, Havasu and Cibola fall into Tier 2.

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Arizona's Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge where javelina, deer, coyotes, bobcats, and cougars are found along with neotropical migratory birds such as the yellow warbler, vermillion flycatcher, and summer tanager. (Photo courtesy USFWS)
Arizona will lose 16 percent of the workforce on its nine national wildlife refuges, which host over one million annual visitors.

The biological program at Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, inhabited by many endangered species, including the southwestern Willow flycatcher, will continue to suffer without a biologist on staff as it is classed as Tier 2.

Leslie Canyon Refuge, established to protect endangered fish, is classed as a Tier 3 and will have no on-site staff.

In New Mexico, Bosque del Apache is the sole Tier 1 refuge. Two refuges in the northeast corner, Las Vegas and Maxwell, will share staff as a Tier 2 complex. Other Tier 2 refuges include Bitter Lake and San Andres. Grulla on the eastern border is a Tier 3 refuge.

New Mexico will lose 20 percent of the workforce on its seven national wildlife refuges, which host over 225,000 annual visitors. Under the new plan, only one refuge will provide adequate biological services for wildlife and educational programs for visitors, while six refuges will have reduced staff or no staff.

In Oklahoma, Salt Plans, Ozark Plateau and Wichita Mountains are classed as Focus Refuges. Sequoyah, Deep Fork, Little River, Tishomingo and Washita are Tier 2 while Optima is the only Tier 3 refuge.

Oklahoma will lose 18 percent of the workforce on its nine national wildlife refuges, which host over two million annual visitors.

Eliminating the refuge manager at Little River Refuge is expected to impact management of some of Oklahoma's last remaining bottomland hardwoods.

On the 16,000 acre Tishomingo Refuge, which receives more than 200,000 annual visitors, there will only be one law enforcement officer who will split his or her time with Hagerman Refuge in Texas, impacting resource protection and visitor safety.

Texas has already complexed several of its refuges; these complexes are included as Focus Refuges. Focus Refuges include Laguna Atascosa, Lower Rio Grande Valley, Santa Ana, Aransas, Matagorda Island, Brazoria, San Bernard, Big Boggy, Anahuac, McFaddin, Texas Point, Moody, Attwater Prairie Chicken, and Balcones Canyonlands.

Tier 2 includes Trinity River, Hagerman, Muleshoe, Caddo Lake and Buffalo Lake. Little Sandy and Neches River fall into the Tier 3 group.

Texas will lose 11 percent of the workforce on its 21 national wildlife refuges, which host some one million annual visitors. Under the new plan, wildlife and visitors at seven Texas refuges will have reduced staff or no staff and minimal services.

"Wildlife refuges are national treasures, home to some of our nation's most imperiled wildlife and critical to ensuring our nation's waterfowl remains healthy and abundant," said Schlickeisen. "Neglecting these refuges and cutting back on staff, services and programs puts the mission of the refuge system at risk. Congress needs to fund the refuge system and continue to invest in this country's wildlife heritage."

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An endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper in the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, set aside in 1985 to protect and manage endangered forest birds and their rainforest habitat. (Photo Jack Jeffrey courtesy USFWS)
Hawaii & the Pacific Islands will lose eight percent of the workforce on its 20 national wildlife refuges, which host more than three million annual visitors. The cuts will sharply reduce or eliminate habitat restoration and invasive species control programs on nearly 2 million acres of refuge lands, waters, atolls, and reefs, and abolish interpretive and education programs for the visiting public.

Idaho will lose almost a third of the workforce on its seven national wildlife refuges, which host more than 50,000 annual visitors. The cuts will sharply reduce or eliminate habitat restoration and invasive species control programs on more than 84,000 acres of refuge lands, and abolish interpretive and education programs for the visiting public, including area schoolchildren.

Oregon will lose 18 percent of the workforce on its 15 national wildlife refuges, which host more than 2 million annual visitors. The cuts will sharply reduce or eliminate habitat restoration and invasive species control programs on more than 1.1 million acres of refuge lands, and abolish interpretive and education programs for the visiting public, including area schoolchildren.

Washington will lose over a quarter of the workforce on its 22 national wildlife refuges, which host more than 2 million annual visitors. The cuts will sharply reduce or eliminate habitat restoration and invasive species control programs on 343,000 acres of refuge lands, and abolish interpretive and education programs for the visiting public, including area schoolchildren.