Why the National Wildlife Refuge System is so important — yet drastically underfunded
A flock of geese erupts across the sky, calling raucously through the pink and orange light of morning. Tiny grizzly bear cubs leave their den for the first time, following close in their mother’s shadow. A Florida manatee glides slowly through crystal-clear waters, basking in the warm sun.
These and a thousand other breathtaking moments occur in wildlife refuges across the United States. But the National Wildlife Refuge System is threatened by funding cuts that are already causing harm. The Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (CARE) has just released a report on why our refuges are struggling — and why they’re so important to fund and maintain.
The report, “America’s National Wildlife Refuges: Home for Wildlife, Haven for Wildlife Enthusiasts,” discovered that many refuges have already had to make tough decisions in the face of a dwindling budget. The cuts make it even harder to run already underfunded refuge activities: visitor centers, wildlife management programs, law enforcement activities and educational programs are all under pressure. On Tern Island in the Hawaiian Islands Refuge, seabirds, green sea turtles and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal are dying more frequently from entanglement in ocean debris because there are now no wildlife managers monitoring the island. Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama will likely see an 80% drop in volunteer support due to the loss of staff who coordinate volunteer programs. And in Virginia’s Chincoteague refuge, environmental education on the refuge has fallen sharply due to budget cuts.
The struggles of our refuges are all the more alarming because of how important they are to preserving endangered species. National wildlife refuges support more than 380 of the nation’s 1311 endangered or threatened species. In fact, many of our refuges were established to help in the recovery of specific species, such as the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Without sufficient funding, the refuge system can’t operate at full capacity to help endangered species recover.
Our refuges are also an important economic investment for the nation and make a serious difference for local communities. According to CARE’s report, wildlife refuges generate an estimated $800 million in employment income each year. The ample recreation opportunities wildlife refuges provide — including photography, bird watching, camping and swimming — attracted more than 47.5 million visitors in FY 2013. And wildlife refuges provide ecosystem benefits, like clean water, reducing fire risk and storm buffering that are worth an estimated $32.3 billion. That’s $65 for every dollar Congress invests in refuge system!
The report estimates that the refuge system needs at least $900 million in its budget, but the system is vastly underfunded: Its highest funding level, in FY 2010, was barely half that at $503 million. CARE is calling on Congress to bridge the ever-widening gap between refuges’ funding needs and their actual budgets, and to provide $476 million in FY 2015 for the refuge system’s operations and management accounts.
Each year that the refuge system is underfunded means lost opportunities to help endangered species, educate the public and maintain our nation’s wild places for future generations. CARE’s report shows that we need to step up refuge funding-before it’s too late.
Haley McKey is a Communications Associate for Defenders of Wildlife