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Downsizing Begins at National Wildlife Refuges
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by Lisa M. Mayo | 2007

Maryland refuges are at risk as the Bush administration forces cuts in staff, public use, and wildlife protection.

On March 14, 2003, then-Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, along with prominent conservationists and local dignitaries, attended the 100th anniversary celebration of the National Wildlife Refuge System, an event that was appropriately held at the nation’s first wildlife refuge—Pelican Island NWR in Florida.

At the Centennial ceremony, Secretary Norton warned that, “The danger to refuges in the next century is if people lose touch with wildlife and the natural world. Too often children are watching animals only on television and playing in the woods or forest only in video games.” In President Bush’s address for the Centennial he similarly stated that, “These are special places where we can teach our children to respect nature and appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.”

But despite the rhetoric at the 2003 ceremony, President Bush’s decreasing annual budgets for the Refuge System tell the real story regarding his commitment to conservation and environmental education. As a result of reduced funding and a crippling $3 billion maintenance backlog, the Refuge System is now issuing workforce reduction plans for every region, resulting in a 20% reduction of staff, the possible closing of refuges, and the elimination of biological and educational programs. The cuts are so severe that Pelican Island NWR will lose its biological staff and its only public-use ranger, which will likely eliminate most public outreach—thus depriving many school children of the environmental education that Norton and Bush once claimed to value.


The American National Wildlife Refuge System

America’s National Wildlife Refuge System is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is an agency within the federal Department of Interior. The Refuge System is currently composed of 545 refuges, 37 wetland management districts, and 3,000 waterfowl production areas representing all 50 states and totaling about 96 million acres. The System protects approximately 280 endangered species and millions of migratory waterfowl, yet 90% of the Refuge System is open to the public for hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, photography, and environmental education. This accessibility results in visitation by more than 40 million people annually and over $1.4 billion generated in annual total economic activity, in addition to the creation of over 24,000 private sector jobs.

Despite the immense value and popularity of the Refuge System, it is one of the most cash-strapped land agencies in the federal government with an annual budget of less than $4 per acre, which is a miserly amount when compared to the National Park Service, which operates on a budget of more than $20 per acre.

Currently the Refuge System needs an annual increase of at least $16 million just to keep up with inflationary costs such as rising energy, technology, maintenance and salary expenses, as well as the expense of new refuges added to the System each year.

Just before this article went to print, President Bush released his FY08 budget, in which the National Wildlife Refuge System received a small increase that still leaves the system more than $55 million behind the inflation adjusted 2004 funding level.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director of the USFWS under President Clinton and now executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife said, “Daily we are seeing reports of the impacts of severe budget shortfalls in the refuge system. Overall, the system is losing a fifth of its staff. Across the country refuges are eliminating active outreach, visitor programs, habitat maintenance, wildlife restoration and education programs. Without more funding the refuge system will not be able to fulfill its vital mission to conserve our nation’s fish, wildlife and their habitats for generations to come.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representatives have gone on record as saying the budget cuts are necessary due to military operations and the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort. But this excuse is challenged by people like Grady Hocutt —former refuge manager and a Refuge Keeper with the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility—who points out that “Redirecting a tiny fraction of what audits show is wasted and stolen in Iraq would allow for full funding of all refuge system needs.”

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has shown little interest in the wise management of our federal funds, and even less interest in adequately funding domestic wildlife conservation. So refuge staff positions will now be eliminated, since people are the only meat left on the bone in the Refuge System.


Workforce Reduction Plans

The Northeast regional office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was the first to release its refuge workforce reduction plan to the public. The report stated that in the first phase of cuts, approximately 24 permanent positions will be eliminated and 20 other positions will be reassigned. Cuts in Maryland and Virginia refuges include the following:

uEastern Neck NWR (MD) will lose two refuge managers

uBlackwater NWR (MD) will lose an administrative position

uMartin NWR (MD) will de-staff and transfer its boat operator to complex headquarters

uPlum Tree Island NWR (VA) will de-staff and transfer its public-use position to complex headquarters

uChincoteague NWR (VA) will lose three refuge manager positions and a biologist

uEastern Shore of Virginia NWR (VA) will lose a public-use specialist

uPotomac River NWR Complex (VA) will lose a refuge manager, maintenance position, and part-time IT specialist


The Southeast and Midwest regional offices were the next areas to release their workforce reduction plans. The Southeast region will eliminate as many as 80 full-time staff positions over the next three years.

This follows the elimination of 64 field positions from 2004_2006 and will result in a 20% reduction in staff. In the Midwest region, a total of 71 positions will be abolished—or 20% of the workforce—and three additional refuges will be de-staffed. In the coming months, the remaining USFWS regions will release their workforce reduction plans as well.

Impacts of the cuts include a reduction of environmental education programs for thousands of school children, reduction of biological surveys and invasive species monitoring, reduction of monitoring for poaching and ATV abuse, reduction of hunting and fishing access, and closures at numerous Visitor Centers for multiple days during the week, which will greatly impact local tourism dollars. In addition, de-staffed refuges will deteriorate as the managers overseeing them will sometimes be located hours away at neighboring refuges and will be unable to provide proper oversight and upkeep.

Currently over 40,000 Americans volunteer at national wildlife refuges— many in the form of nonprofit Friends groups—but now more citizens are being called upon to step up and help fill the void created by the cuts. Unfortunately, no matter how many volunteers come forward, these citizens cannot replace highly skilled wildlife and public-use professionals at the nation’s wildlife refuges. In fact, without USFWS employees to oversee volunteer efforts, many refuges could see a decrease in their volunteer-run programs.


The Need for Wildlife Refuges

Despite President Bush’s declining interest in America’s wildlife refuges, the reality is that as pressure builds on the nation’s stressed wildlife populations—pressure from global warming, pollution, sprawl, invasive species, poaching, and wetlands destruction—the need for a well managed, scientifically sound Refuge System has never been greater.

With a new party in charge of congressional budgets, now is the time for Americans to demand that Congress, Secretary of Interior Dick Kempthorne, and President Bush protect the Refuge System that they are charged with overseeing. The money is there, but Americans must produce the political will.


Take action:

Write Secretary Kempthorne, President Bush, and your congressional representatives and senators. Request that they increase funding for the Refuge System to ensure adequate staffing, continued access to all public refuges, and a reduction of the maintenance backlog.

Urge your Congressional Representative to join the new House Congressional Wildlife Refuge Caucus, which will fight for better management of the Refuge System.

Visit and learn about joining a refuge Friends group and volunteering at a refuge near you.


Dirk Kempthorne,

Secretary of the Interior,

Dept. of the Interior

1849 C Street, N.W.

Washington DC 20240


President George W. Bush

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500


The Honorable (Name)

United States Senate

Washington, D.C. 20510


The Honorable Rep. (Name)
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington DC 20515


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