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Daily Subscription Msg 1 Posted: 01:20 PM 08/07/06 (CST)
Wildlife refuge money woes hinder progress

Thursday, August 3, 2006 10:28 AM EDT

By Joe Albert Staff Writer

Washington - The nation's refuge system is at the breaking point, crippled by funding cuts that threaten their ability to fill their role as providers of wildlife habitat and public access.

That's according to the National Wildlife Refuge Association, which recently detailed to Congress the 'mounting crisis facing national wildlife refuges.'

'We're in trouble,' said Michael Woodbridge, director of government affairs for the NWRA. 'The refuge system is at a crisis point.'

After refuge funding increased until, and peaked in the 2004 fiscal year at $391.2 million, it's dropped steadily since then. For the next fiscal year - 2007 - the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that sets refuge spending at $388.7 million.

President George Bush requested $381.7 million (his 2006 request was for about $11 million more), and a Senate committee recently passed a bill for $391.2 million, Woodbridge said.

The NWRA, along with the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement - which includes NWRA, as well as diverse groups such as Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Nation Rifle Association, and Defenders of Wildlife - said refuges for fiscal year 2007 needed to have $415 million in funding to maintain themselves. The same group in the mid-1990s said refuges needed about $700 million per year to operate at a level they should, Woodbridge said.

Added to the funding troubles is a backlog of about $3.1 billion in operations and maintenance needs in refuges across the nation, Woodbridge said. That includes things such as work on visitor centers, removal of invasive species, and maintenance needs.

Funding decreases also are resulting in unfilled staff positions.

In U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 5 in the northeast, there's a plan in place to identify refuges that should be put into 'de-staffed status.'

Those would be open to public use, but managed from afar.

In Region 3, which includes Minnesota and seven other states, there's no such plan in place, but between 30 and 40 positions weren't filled in 2006, and more will go unfilled in 2007, said Jim Leach, refuge supervisor for Minnesota.

'Our stance going in was it doesn't matter how you slice it - whether you have a specific plan (like in Region 5) or just die by a thousand cuts - the simple fact is refuges are underfunded and in serious trouble,' Woodbridge said.

Officials in Minnesota won't be targeting cuts in any specific refuge or wetland management district, but will lose staff due to natural attrition and be unable to fill those positions.

Because of things such as war, natural disasters, and homeland security, the refuge budget is likely to slide through at least 2008, Leach said.

'The bottom line is, the proposed 2007 budget for refuges is going to require that we take cuts,' Leach said. 'Just to make ends meet, we've come to the conclusion that, yes, we are going to have to lose staff.'

When it's possible, stations in close proximity to one another will share staff, resources, and equipment, Leach said.

Leach said refuge needs will be prioritized, and that staff will do less with less. Migratory birds and habitat for them will continue to be at the top of the list, he said.

'These individuals have to be physically and mentally ready to do their jobs every day, and there's only a certain amount they can do,' Leach said. 'We don't want it to affect them and their families.'

When citizens start to notice the changes at refuges, they should be careful not to blame the staff working at them, Woodbridge said.

'People shouldn't beat up on (the USFWS),' he said. 'They should beat up on Congress.'
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