Re­port: Staff shortages ham­per U.S. wildlife refuges

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FIFTY PLUS - By Gil­lian Flac­cus

PORTLAND, ORE. » Hun­dreds of na­tional wildlife refuges that pro­vide crit­i­cal habi­tat for mi­gra­tory birds and other species are crip­pled by a staffing short­age that has cur­tailed ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams, ham­pered the fight against in­va­sive species and weak­ened se­cu­rity at fa­cil­i­ties that at­tract nearly 50 mil­lion vis­i­tors an­nu­ally, a group of pub­lic em­ploy­ees and law en­force­ment said Wednes­day.

Staffing at the na­tion’s 565 wildlife refuges and re­lated prop­er­ties shrank nearly 15 per­cent in the past decade, and more than one-third of those lo­ca­tions don’t have any staff on site, the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based Pub­lic Em­ploy­ees for En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­spon­si­bil­ity said. More than half of the refuges no longer have their own man­ager and have been com­bined into mas­sive “com­plexes” that are over­seen by some­one who might be hun­dreds of miles away, said Jeff Ruch, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non­profit al­liance.

The re­port raises con­cerns about low staffing lev­els given the re­cent armed takeover of the Mal­heur Na­tional Wildlife Refuge in re­mote south­east Ore­gon. More than two dozen oc­cu­pied the refuge’s head­quar­ters in Jan­uary, launch­ing a 41-day stand­off with au­thor­i­ties that ended two weeks af­ter one of them was fa­tally shot.

The oc­cu­piers were protest­ing the pros­e­cu­tion of two ranch­ers who set fires on fed­eral lands. Seven of them are now on trial in fed­eral court in Portland.

The cri­sis set off alarm bells and prompted of­fi­cials to spend $6 mil­lion from an al­ready tight bud­get to move law en­force­ment of­fi­cers to pre­serves scat­tered in re­mote lo­ca­tions across the West, said David Houghton, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Wildlife Refuge As­so­ci­a­tion. Many refuges are pa­trolled by a sin­gle of­fi­cer who cov­ers sev­eral states.

Some refuge man­agers have since sent their law en­force­ment of­fi­cers to ad­di­tional train­ing or up­dated This file photo shows a bro­ken sign at the en­trance to the Mal­heur Na­tional Wildlife refuge out­side of Burns, Ore. se­cu­rity plans.

“Peo­ple are pay­ing at­ten­tion to that whole dy­namic. I only have one law en­force­ment of­fi­cer here and she cov­ers the en­tire range of refuges, and she’s by her­self,” said Michelle Pot­ter, who man­ages seven refuges and three other habi­tats in and around Long Is­land, New York. “I worry about safety.”

Vanessa Kauff­man, a spokesman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, de­clined to com­ment on the study but did ac­knowl­edge a tight bud­get in a phone in­ter­view with the AP. The agency over­sees the refuge sys­tem.

“The bud­get de­ter­mines the staff, and if you have at­tri­tion and you have a short­ened bud­get, you’re not go­ing to be able to re­place staff,” said Kauff­man. “We do what we can.”

The refuges, as well as 178 other fed­er­ally pro­tected ar­eas ded­i­cated to wa­ter­fowl habi­tat and wet­land preser­va­tion, at­tract 47.5 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year for bird-watch­ing, hunt­ing, fish­ing and ed­u­ca­tional ac­tiv­i­ties, but their pri­mary mis­sion is the preser­va­tion of crit­i­cal habi­tat for frag­ile species. Many, but not all, are in re­mote ar­eas.

Be­cause they are fo­cused on wildlife preser­va­tion, refuges are less well known by the pub­lic than their flashier, selfie-friendly cousins at the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, yet they have ex­panded rapidly in re­cent years as fund­ing has shrunk.

Since 2010, the over­all refuge bud­get dropped by $17 mil­lion to $486 mil­lion while the sys­tem added more than 700 mil­lion acres, said Houghton.

Much of that ex­pan­sion comes from the ad­di­tion of two mas­sive ma­rine mon­u­ments, in­clud­ing one des­ig­nated in the At­lantic Ocean last week by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama that in­cludes 5,000 square miles of un­der­wa­ter canyons and moun­tains off the New Eng­land coast.

Mean­while, ex­ist­ing refuges are strug­gling to com­plete their mis­sion with a staff so pared down that some can’t keep on vol­un­teers be­cause there’s no one to man­age them.

In Rhode Is­land, for ex­am­ple, a refuge com­plex cut ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams for school chil­dren by 20 per­cent, lost its vis­i­tor cen­ter man­ager and hasn’t been able to treat huge swaths of land for in­va­sive species.

Char­lie Van­de­moer over­sees five refuges in Rhode Is­land but has se­cu­rity from only one of­fi­cer who also pa­trols refuges in Mas­sachusetts and Con­necti­cut.

He re­lies on more than 23,000 vol­un­teer hours a year to get the most crit­i­cal work done and re­cently sent his soli­tary law en­force­ment of­fi­cer for ad­di­tional train­ing.

“If it wasn’t for vol­un­teers, they’d have to shut the doors,” said Marvin Plen­ert, a re­tired man­ager in Portland who used to over­see the West­ern re­gion. “It’s pa­thetic, is what it is.”

HAL BERNTON — THE SEAT­TLE TIMES VIA AP, FILE

In this file photo, geese make a stopover on farm lands north of the Mal­heur Na­tional Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore. Hun­dreds of na­tional wildlife refuges that pro­vide crit­i­cal habi­tat for mi­gra­tory birds and other species are crip­pled by a staffing short­age that has cur­tailed ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams, ham­pered the fight against in­va­sive species and weak­ened se­cu­rity at fa­cil­i­ties that at­tract nearly 50 mil­lion vis­i­tors an­nu­ally, a group of pub­lic em­ploy­ees and law en­force­ment said Wednes­day.

DON RYAN — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

In this file photo, a pronghorn an­te­lope doe keeps watch as two fawns peer out from tall grass in the heart of south­east­ern Ore­gon’s Hart Moun­tain Na­tional An­te­lope Refuge near Adel, Ore. A new re­port from a non­profit al­liance of pub­lic em­ploy­ees, law en­force­ment and land man­agers says ram­pant staff shortages at the na­tion’s sys­tem of fed­eral wildlife refuges are harm­ing pub­lic ac­cess and pre­vent­ing them from do­ing their mis­sion to pre­serve wildlife.

ERIC RISBERG — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

In this file photo, the Tide­lands Trail goes through for­mer salt ponds at the Don Ed­wards San Fran­cisco Bay Na­tional Wildlife Refuge with high­way 84 in the back­ground in Fre­mont, Calif.

DAVE KILLEN — THE ORE­GO­NIAN VIA AP, FILE

This file photo shows part of the Mal­heur Na­tional Wildlife refuge out­side of Burns, Ore.

DAVE KILLEN — THE ORE­GO­NIAN VIA AP

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