State gets its way on a national refuge

  • National Elk Refuge

    RICCARDS SAVI, for USFWS
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Sound science goes sour."

Endangered species management isn’t the only hot-point issue for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Political pressure is also affecting how the agency manages 540 national wildlife refuges across the country.

In 1998, the state of Wyoming sued the Fish and Wildlife Service, trying to force the agency to vaccinate elk for brucellosis on the National Elk Refuge (HCN, 3/16/98: Elk are the battleground). Wyoming officials worried that the elk, which come to the refuge by the thousands each winter to feed on pellets and hay dispersed by managers, could spread the disease to cattle. The state lost that suit, appealed it and lost again. Eventually, however, Fish and Wildlife conceded and agreed to study vaccination.

The agency’s study found the vaccine unreliable. The public, which was given a chance to comment on the proposal, overwhelmingly favored improving elk habitat off the refuge and reducing the herd’s numbers, rather than continuing to feed elk on the refuge, and then vaccinating them for the disease.

But last December, Fish and Wildlife officials decided to go ahead with vaccination. When Barry Reiswig, the manager of the 25,000-acre refuge, opposed the plan, saying it wasn’t compatible with the objectives of the refuge, Fish and Wildlife Regional Director Ralph Morgenweck withdrew Reiswig’s authority over the decision.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Wyoming Outdoor Council obtained e-mails and memos detailing the agency’s decision. One e-mail, to Reiswig from Steve Berendzen, the refuge supervisor for Montana, Wyoming and Utah, reads: “I encourage you to keep your comments to yourself (or very discreet) when asked your opinions on much of this.” Berendzen explains that Steve Williams, the director of Fish and Wildlife, is “very serious” about getting the vaccination program through, and doesn’t want to “impact the tenuous relationship” with the Wyoming’s Game and Fish Department.

“Fish and Wildlife ruled against public opinion and made a mockery of the process,” says Meredith Taylor of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “It’s a political sham perpetrated by Fish and Wildlife in (Washington,) D.C., and their pawns in Denver.”

Vaccination will begin this winter.

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