Washington, DC — The Bush administration has ordered a 10 % across-the-board cutback in funding for the National Wildlife Refuge System, leaving scores of refuges without any assigned staff, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The Refuge System, a part of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), will see declining budgets through 2011 under the Bush plan, despite significant increases in the number of refuges, visitors and an array of other costs. Each of the seven FWS regional offices across the country is now formulating plans to absorb the cuts. The Southeast Region, with the largest number of refuges (128), will eliminate approximately 80 staff positions, leaving more than one-third (43) of its refuges with no staff at all, a condition the agency calls “Preservation Status.” More than half of the refuges in the region will be left with fewer than three staff positions.
“Make no mistake about it – this is the first stage in dismantling the National Wildlife Refuge System,” stated Grady Hocutt, a former long-time refuge manager who directs the PEER refuge program. “It took a century to build this network of wildlife sanctuaries into the envy of the world but much of that work is being undone in just this decade.”
Established by President Theodore Roosevelt, the National Wildlife Refuge System now covers 96 million acres (an area bigger than the State of Montana) and encompasses 545 individual refuges and 37 wetlands management areas. Apart from providing critical wildlife habitat, national refuges are a major recreational outlet, with an estimated 40 million visitors each year, including hunters and anglers. There is at least one refuge located within an hour’s drive of every major city in the U.S.
The Bush administration is proposing a slight decrease in the $380 million refuge budget. Given rising costs and more refuge units (17 new refuges have been established since 2001), this posture of flat-lining the budget amounts to a significant resource reduction in real terms. When the refuge system’s $3.1 billion operations and maintenance backlog is added to the picture, the outlook for the refuges becomes even bleaker.
Since Congress has yet to act on the FWS budget for FY 2007, which began a month ago, the Bush administration has gone ahead to implement cuts without waiting for Congressional approval. Refuge funding will be one of a plethora of issues Congress will confront when it returns for a post-election lame duck meeting to wrap up its two-year session.
“Redirecting a tiny fraction of what audits show is wasted or stolen in Iraq would allow for full funding of all refuge system needs,” added Hocutt, noting that the U.S. is spending an estimated $177 million per day in Iraq. “If Teddy Roosevelt knew what was happening to his legacy, he would be spinning in his grave.”