Wildlife refuges suffer under budget cuts and staff shortages

The key mission of the Refuge System — to protect and restore wildlife habitat — may be falling by the wayside.

 

Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains loom over the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. While the refuge used to have 13 people on staff to manage the reserve, they now have just three full-timers.

The Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge is nestled between the boggy wetlands and glistening ponds of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. Inside, near a cluttered display of taxidermy birds — a tall American white pelican with a bright orange beak and an osprey caught in midflight — Frances “Wa” Correia greets visitors. The 92-year-old has been volunteering here for 15 years, fielding questions, answering the phone and keeping the kiosk outside filled up with pamphlets. It’s work she enjoys doing. Still, as the number of full-time professional staff dwindles, volunteers like Correia are forced to take on even more tasks, while other important projects are left undone. 

The refuge once employed 13 people to manage and study its land. Now, it has only three full-time staffers and one seasonal worker. Consequently, key jobs — such as bird migration surveys, weed management and prescribed wildfires — are being left unfinished. This is a problem plaguing the entire National Wildlife Refuge System, which has suffered from a string of budget cuts and a shrinking staff for the last decade or more.

That means that refuges nationwide have fewer scientists, reduced law enforcement and a lack of habitat restoration. As a result, one of the system’s central responsibilities — to protect and restore wildlife habitat — is falling by the wayside.    

The National Wildlife Refuge System, a branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, protects more than 850 million acres of land and water. From the marshy Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Florida to arid landscapes like the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, the Refuge System is home to nearly every species of bird, fish, reptile and amphibian in the U.S., making it the world’s largest collection of habitats set aside for wildlife conservation. Around 50 million people visit the nation’s refuges each year.

But funding has not kept up with the system’s needs. Accounting for inflation, the overall Refuge System budget has decreased by almost 18% since 2010. As a result, the number of staff is currently around 2,600, which is an almost 20% drop from 2013. Additionally, as of 2015, there were only 318 refuge officers, down 65% from 1990, according to the 2015 annual report. Fewer officers mean higher chances of damaged property and hunting violations, a matter of particular concern since the Trump administration is opening up additional refuge acreage to hunting and fishing.

On a sunny, early-October afternoon, a cacophony of birdsong — the staccato chirp of the Song Sparrow against the loud whistle of the European Starling — could be heard throughout the 2,800-acre Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. A group of visitors sat on descending rows of stairs, shaped like an open-air theater, as they watched trumpeter swans glide across the shimmering pond.

While budget and staff cuts may not diminish this experience, they do dampen scientists’ understanding of the local avian population, which includes some 240 species of migratory birds. Deborah Goslin, the refuge’s former biological technician, used to spend her days surveying the migrations of waterfowl, raptor and shorebirds and studying their responses to floods, wildfire burns and other environmental changes.

Goslin was let go, however, and now no one is doing that work. These days, the refuge leans heavily on volunteers, especially for less specialized tasks, such as running the environmental education program or staffing the visitor center. But even with that help, the visitor center is closed many days due to insufficient staffing. “There’s so much information right behind that door,” said volunteer Richard Davis, “and it’s not even available.”

The Trump administration’s budget cuts are hitting all the public-land agencies. But the National Wildlife Refuge System has been struggling for years, never receiving the funding and recognition that it needs, said Geoff Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, a nonprofit based in D.C. “I don’t think it’s a Democrat or Republican thing,” he said. He suspects that some of the Refuge System’s woes stem from its lack of visibility compared to, say, national parks. But despite these challenges, said Haskett, keeping refuges working remains crucial. Not only do they protect some of the country’s most iconic ecosystems and wildlife, refuges allow the public to connect with the nature around them.

That’s the part that keeps Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge Manager Tom Reed going. A few years ago, a family traveled all the way from Hong Kong to the refuge just to go birding, Reed recalled. “Seeing the joy on the face of what they just observed, it humbles me,” he said. “It makes me realize how lucky I am to look out at this refuge each day.”

Note: This story has been updated to include current National Wildlife Refuge System staff numbers.

Helen Santoro is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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