Ravaged Refuges

Wildlife sanctuaries are perennially short-changed

It was 1985 when the feds paid market price for a tough old cattle ranch in the Altar Valley. In establishing the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, the government's main goal was simple: rescuing the endangered masked bobwhite quail from the edge of extinction.

Two decades later, Buenos Aires can no longer afford the birds it was created to protect.

Like at the nation's other 546 wildlife preserves, years of short-funding have taken their toll here, and something had to give. "The problem is, you have to cut somewhere," says Mitch Ellis, manager of Buenos Aires. "So where do you cut?"

That question was answered recently: By year's end, bobwhite recovery will be farmed out to a Maryland research institution. Ellis calls the quail's relocation a good thing overall, because it will free up money for other needs, such as the restoration of refuge habitat. Already, 40 percent of the available man hours at the border park go toward repairing damage from smugglers. In light of that, the quail simply could not compete.

Remarkably, Buenos Aires is considered a high-priority refuge. That means it hasn't suffered even harsher belt-tightening faced by other wildlife preserves. Many have seen severe staffing cuts. Some have been forced to abandon their endangered species and education programs altogether. Maintenance of visitor roads and wildlife habitat has been put on hold. And some refuges have simply locked their gates.

This drastic downsizing comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service--the refuge system's parent agency--struggles with a $2.5 million budget shortfall and no solid relief in sight. To cope, Fish and Wildlife plans to reduce its refuge workforce by 20 percent, or 565 positions, during the next two years. That reduction comes on the heels of about 225 job cuts incurred between 2004 and 2006.

According to Ellis, refuges in the agency's Southwest Region--including eight in Arizona--will lose 38 jobs, down from the current 329 employees. "And that's after you consider we're stretched pretty thin already," he says. "That's why we're coming up with a list of things we're not going to be able to do anymore."

So how did this preserve system--so proudly unveiled by Teddy Roosevelt in 1903--get into such a pickle?

Maribeth Oakes calls it willful neglect. She's national wildlife refuge director for the Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C. "The refuge program has been level-funded since 2004," she says. "There was a little blip in 2007, but not much of one.

"I think there were other priorities for earlier Congresses. Those priorities were to provide incentives for oil and gas drilling and other activities. Certainly, they knew about the problem that refuges and other lands were facing. The maintenance backlogs were clearly documented."

According to Fish and Wildlife's own number-crunchers, the refuge system "needs at least a $15 million annual increase just to keep pace with inflation," she says. "So with level funding or just incremental increases, they're actually working at deficit."

To push a boost in refuge funding, the Wilderness Society has joined 20 strange bedfellows--from the National Rifle Association and the American Sportsfishing Association to Defenders of Wildlife--in a coalition called the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement, or CARE. "The one thing we agree on," says Oakes, "is that there has to be more funding for the refuge system."

On Capitol Hill, CARE is lobbying for the $15 million cited by Fish and Wildlife. Oakes says a current measure in the House of Representatives would provide a $56 million accumulative increase. Meanwhile, a Senate bill offers only a $19 million bump.

Where those disparate sums will meet is anybody's guess. Meanwhile, preserve supporters claim that more than just nature is at stake. "Many refuges are impacted in more subtle ways, such as the loss of education programs for schoolchildren," says Noah Kahn, a refuge program specialist with the Defenders of Wildlife, also headquartered in Washington. "There are refuges all across the country that have lost biologists or educators. It really has a detrimental impact on environmental education, fishing programs, hunting programs (and) interpretive programs."

But such cuts can also ripple far beyond preserve boundaries. According to studies, an estimated $1.4 billion is pumped into the national economy each year by refuge visitors. That translates directly into jobs for surrounding communities. Kahn says government-generated stats for the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge near Yuma highlight this point. "Visitors generated $18 million in spending for the local economy. They generated 106 jobs for the local economy, and $2.5 million in employee income. That comes from Fish and Wildlife's own economists."

To Kahn, the fact that refuges are being short-changed is just part of a larger political landscape tilting toward the Iraq war. "The Bush administration has never shown any attention to funding conservation and environmental programs," he says. "Really, I think it's pretty easy to see what this country is spending our money on right now. Our priorities are elsewhere."

Congress may or may not decide to rescue the refuges. But for mangers like Ellis, the time for making tough choices is already here. One was deciding to cooperatively run the bobwhite recovery with an outside institution.

"The single position we have associated with the (quail) program here doesn't do it," he says. "It's really a three-person job. So our other two biologists here, and the assistant refuge manager, spend a considerable amount of time over at the quail facility, making up for that shortfall."

Moving the bobwhites off his refuge will ease the strain, he says. "Once we outsource the care of these birds, and we drop that position, we'll be better off."

But even maintaining peripheral participation in quail recovery is a judgment call for the refuge system. "What's more important: a migrating flock of Canada geese that stopover at a particular refuge, or the masked bobwhite quail program at Buenos Aires?" Ellis asks.

"We look at that as, 'Well, we're the only ones looking out for the masked bobwhites, so we'll let the goose program at another refuge slide.' It's that kind of decision-making process. It's not good; it's not what anybody wants. But it's what we're forced to do."

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