Washington, DC — The U.S. Department of Justice has filed criminal charges against a National Wildlife Refuge Manager for rescuing a threatened species, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The charges involve actions the now-former manager took to save 400 tadpoles of the rare Chiricahua leopard frog from certain destruction.
Last week, DOJ cited Wayne Shifflett, the long-time manager of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, with moving the tadpoles in 2003 without proper authorization. Not only was Shifflett the manager of the refuge where the frogs were re-introduced, after the species had been eradicated, but he also had an Endangered Species permit issued by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (the Chiricahua leopard frog is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act). DOJ contends that Shifflett did not, however, have permission of the state agency, Arizona Game & Fish, to take the tadpoles from private lands onto the refuge. The citation DOJ issued on February 14th imposes a $3,500 fine.
This is the only prosecution on record of a wildlife refuge manager for a conservation-related offense.
“Refuge managers who act boldly to protect wildlife should not be prosecuted; they should be commended,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who noted that the U.S. Attorney’s office in Arizona twice declined to prosecute Shifflett and that charges were ultimately filed out of Justice Department Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “While it is a mystery why Justice would use scarce prosecutorial resources to pursue this case, it is a certainty that this action reeks of slimy politics.”
Shifflett’s decision to move the tadpoles has saved the species from complete elimination on the refuge. The frogs are now thriving in ponds, tanks and a breeding facility for which taxpayers had already spent $100,000 to facilitate the threatened leopard frogs’ reintroduction. Shifflett acted after Arizona Game & Fish had refused to issue a permit to a university researcher to move the frogs onto the refuge.
“I have been asked many times by peers and friends if I had to make that decision again, would I have made the same decision and my answer is always the same: Without a doubt, it was the right decision for me and the resource,” said Shifflett, who retired this May after a 38-year career in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “A former Director of the Service would always remind us ‘Refuge Managers are all about saving dirt and protecting critters.’ Politics change but saving dirt and critters has always remained the only constant which has directed my decisions.”
Rather than spend months in his retirement fighting the criminal charges, Wayne Shifflett has decided to pay the fine. The criminal charges come more than a year and a half after his actions to save the frogs. The delay reflects months of back room pressure and meetings about whether Shifflett should be prosecuted even after he retired.
“This case is the perfect illustration of how federal wildlife policy
is now being set by pencil pushers and political schemers rather than by experienced,
dedicated professionals,” Ruch added. “Regardless of the costs,
Wayne Shifflett’s decisiveness will pay dividends to the restoration of
the Sonoran Desert ecosystem for generations to come.”