Washington, DC — Sharp cuts in funding and staffing for the National Wildlife Refuge System are precluding needed conservation work while compromising wildlife law enforcement and visitor safety, according to a new survey of refuge managers released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Bush administration is already implementing double-digit refuge budget cuts in several regions, with further reductions expected to be unveiled next week.
As a consequence, an overwhelming percentage of managers are worried that the nation’s 100-year-old, 100 million acre system of wildlife refuges is in trouble. PEER received surveys back from more than half (52%) of the 337 managers overseeing the 545 refuges and 37 wetlands management areas across the country. Deepening cutbacks are the biggest concern:
- More than nine in ten (94%) say the situation is deteriorating and that “base funding (salaries and fixed expenses) at my refuge is declining in real terms”;
- Nearly two in three (62%) conclude that the refuge system is not “currently accomplishing its missions.” More than two in three (72%) estimate that “staffing levels for my refuge fall [more than 25%] below its core requirements”; and
- Two out of three (66%) agree that the practice of “complexing” or consolidating refuges “is leaving refuge units basically un-staffed.”
As one refuge manger wrote in the essay portion of the survey, “Erosion of staffing is killing us.” Another added. “Currently, the greatest factor negatively impacting our station is lack of funding.” Substantial percentages also claim these cuts are negatively affecting both visitor safety and protection of wildlife and habitats from poaching, excessive take and other law violations.
“The National Wildlife Refuge System has been put on a starvation diet,” stated Grady Hocutt, a former long-time refuge manager who directs the PEER refuge program, pointing to recent staff cuts that will leave up to 30% of the refuges in some regions without any personnel, a condition called “Preservation Status.” “It is becoming flat out impossible for refuge managers to do their job.”
The National Wildlife Refuge System covers an area bigger than Montana, providing both critical wildlife habitat and major recreational outlets, with an estimated 40 million visitors each year, including hunters and anglers. There is a refuge within an hour’s drive of every major U.S. city.
With little or no support staff, more than three in four (86%) managers estimate that they are able to spend less than half of their time doing “conservation work, as opposed to purely administrative tasks.” At the same time, new data reporting systems imposed by the Bush Interior Department are universally reviled.
The deteriorating fiscal situation appears to be fueling a growing pessimism amongst refuge staff:
- More than two in three (67%) are no longer “optimistic about the future of the refuge system.” A similar percentage (65%) rates morale as either poor or “at an all time low” (26%);
- A strong majority (57%) lacks “confidence in the current leadership of the Fish & Wildlife Service.” Not a single refuge manager registers strong confidence in agency leadership; and
- There is growing sentiment in favor of removing the refuge system from the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), with nearly half (43%) calling for creation of a separate agency. Significantly, two in three (66%) believe that resources “for my refuge are diverted to meet other (FWS) needs.”
“According to every refuge manager with whom I have spoken, the situation on their refuges is getting much worse,” concluded Hocutt, pointing to the results of a similar PEER survey six years ago. “It will be up to the new Congress to reverse this disastrous course.”