Mary Beth Beetham, Director of Legislative Affairs
Cabeza Prieta. Laguna Atacosa. Kenai. Montezuma. Pelican Island. What do these names have in common? Each is a national wildlife refuge — special places where wildlife comes first, strung like a lattice of fine jewels across America, places as beautiful as the names that describe them. If important conservation programs go off the fiscal cliff or are subject to further budget cuts, they could be downsized or eliminated completely, to the detriment of hundreds of species of wildlife. Last week, we talked about one of these: the Endangered Species Program. This week, we’re taking a look at the National Wildlife Refuge System, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
With 560 refuges on approximately 150 million acres, the National Wildlife Refuge System is the largest network of lands and waters in the world dedicated to wildlife conservation. Refuges are home to more than 700 bird species, 220 kinds of mammals, 250 reptiles and amphibians, 1,000 species of fish and nearly 300 threatened or endangered species. The Refuge System forms the backbone of our nation’s efforts to protect our unique and irreplaceable wildlife heritage. And while wildlife comes first on refuges, they are for people, too. There is a refuge in every state and territory, and within an hour’s drive of most major American cities, and the millions of Americans who visit them each year not only enjoy their experiences at the refuge, but also contribute to the local economies of nearby communities.
How does the FWS manage this valuable national asset? The Refuge System’s work is divided into five areas: Wildlife and Habitat Management; Refuge Visitor Services; Refuge Law Enforcement; Conservation Planning and Refuge Maintenance.
Putting Wildlife First
The Wildlife and Habitat Management program is where the actual hands-on work to protect wildlife and habitats gets done. This work includes inventorying and monitoring animal populations and habitat quality; restoring wetlands, forests, grasslands and ocean areas; controlling invasive species; conducting prescribed burns and addressing wildlife disease outbreaks. For instance, this program restored wetlands and streams in a mine-damaged part of Nevada’s Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and reintroduced the speckled dace, a tiny fish that had been extinct there since the 1950s.
Including People Too
Our wildlife heritage belongs to all present and future generations of Americans, and the Visitor Services program works to provide magnificent recreational and educational experiences to about 45 million wildlife enthusiasts each year, whose spending generates more than $4.2 billion and nearly 35,000 private sector jobs in local economies. People visit refuges to hunt, fish, photograph nature, observe wildlife and learn about the environment. The Visitor Services program staffs visitor centers and other facilities, and provides interpretive signs and brochures, tours and structured classroom or outdoor activities. They also manage the network of 40,000 volunteers that do 20 percent of the work across the Refuge System.
Protecting ‘Em All
The Refuge Law Enforcement program is staffed with professional law enforcement officers who work to protect not only wildlife and habitats, but also Refuge System facilities and the people who come to enjoy them. Funding goes to emergency managers, field officers, regional law enforcement chiefs, training, equipment and supplies, all of which go to prevent damage or destruction of habitats and facilities, drug trafficking, burglary and other crimes. These workers play an important role in places like Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, located along Arizona’s border with Mexico, which has been heavily impacted by smugglers of both people and drugs. The current law enforcement force for the entire refuge system is just 287, but an analysis by the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommended a total of 845 full-time law enforcement officers.
Getting Conservation Right
Conservation Planning may sound boring, but this program is where the FWS develops Comprehensive Conservation Plans that ensure refuges are managed in a balanced, efficient and coordinated way. Refuge managers and planners work closely with the public, states, tribes, private landowners and other stakeholders to develop the plans for each refuge, which must be revised and updated every 15 years.
Keeping it Running
The Maintenance program takes care of the Refuge System’s physical infrastructure — assets that are valued at $26.5 billion. These facilities include a fleet of vehicles and heavy equipment, visitor centers, storage buildings, observation platforms, walkways, roads, bridges, trails, fencing and water management structures, and maintaining such a varied array of assets is an important part of conservation work. For instance, this program maintains and repairs heavy equipment needed to remove thick swaths of invasive plants at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in California.
If funding for the National Wildlife Refuge System is cut further, it will have disastrous consequences for all these essential programs. The Refuge System already operates on a shoestring budget of only $3.24 per acre — just about half of what is needed!
Defenders is a member of a coalition of groups called the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE), which released a report this week called Fiscal Cliff Dwellers: America’s Wildlife Refuges on the Edge. This report describes the top 10 impacts that the fiscal cliff or additional funding cuts will have on the Refuge System:
- Visitor centers and even entire refuges will be forced to close.
- Opportunities for hunting and fishing will be lost.
- Without staff to coordinate them or resources to do the work, volunteers will be turned away.
- Local economies that rely on income from refuge visitors will lose revenue.
- Without enough people to enforce laws protecting refuges, their wildlife and their visitors, we will see an increase of poaching, vandalism and drug smuggling on refuges.
- People who enjoy birding and watching wildlife will lose the opportunity to do so.
- Without the staff or equipment needed to remove them, invasive species will spread.
- Habitat restoration and fire management will be halted.
- Responses to devastation caused by natural disasters will be delayed.
- The newly-initiated inventory and monitoring program, which tracks the size and health of wildlife populations and habitat, and can help alert refuge managers to potential problems, could be terminated.
The report calls on Congress to abandon these draconian funding cuts and instead, fully fund the Refuge System. Remember, the many species of wildlife that rely on these refuges for survival cannot speak for themselves — we need to be their voice. Please contact your members of Congress and ask them not to cut funding for national wildlife refuge and other programs that wildlife need.