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Mighty lean times for wildlife refuges

As budgets tighten, the national system struggles to protect programs and species.

February 27, 2007|Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writer

LOS BANOS, CALIF. — The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, where tule elk bugle across grassy uplands and migratory waterfowl splash in languid sloughs, has been run for years out of a strip mall 12 miles away, next door to a Sears store.

There is no money to build a visitors center on the 44,000-acre complex that provides recreation for about 90,000 tourists, anglers, hunters and bird watchers each year. Nor is there money to hire a second full-time law enforcement officer for the complex's three far-flung refuges in Merced and Stanislaus counties.

So Ranger Anthony Merrill patrols the largest freshwater wetland complex left in California with a dog named Scott.

A high-energy, 80-pound Belgian Malinois, Scott can be a formidable ally when Merrill is tracking down poachers, breaking up altercations, searching for marijuana patches and meth labs, or investigating burglar alarms at refuge warehouses. But the pair can cover only one refuge at a time, although drug crimes, fish and game violations, vandalism, dumping and medical emergencies occur throughout the complex.

The National Wildlife Refuge System, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was created a century ago to provide a haven for the most imperiled species. But today the mosaic of 547 refuges covering nearly 100 million acres of swamps, islands, wetlands, deserts, grasslands and forests is itself jeopardized by budget constraints.

Distributed across all 50 states, the refuges are home to hundreds of types of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish -- many threatened or endangered. But refuge managers say cutbacks are undermining efforts to protect an array of sensitive species, including red wolves, sandhill cranes, pronghorn antelope, sea turtles and rare butterflies.

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Personnel scarce

More than 225 jobs at refuges were cut between fiscal 2004 and 2006, leaving some refuges with no employees. Many refuges operate without full-time law enforcement. Some are losing battles against invasive plant species that choke out wildlife habitat. Education programs for schoolchildren and others are being curtailed or dropped at some refuges. At the 1.5-million-acre Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the largest in the lower 48 states, there is no money to fix a washed-out stretch of a 75-mile dirt road from Las Vegas across the Mojave Desert in Nevada. Some visitors insist on driving through the closed section and get stranded. "I just hope someone does not die before I have the opportunity to have it fixed," manager Amy Sprunger said.

Across the country, in North Carolina's Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, half of the 100 miles of roads have been closed. "We can't pay for materials to fix the holes," manager Howard Phillips said.

At California's Antioch Dunes refuge along the San Joaquin River near Antioch, budget constraints have contributed to a steep decline in endangered Lange's metalmark butterflies, a subspecies only found there, according to manager Christy Smith.

From a peak of 2,300 eight years ago, Smith said, the population plunged to about 100, because invasive plants overran buckwheat that sustains the butterflies. Now the refuge is using volunteers and others to attack the invaders, and a zoo plans to capture some butterflies to propagate them for release. "They are no longer sustainable in the wild," Smith said.

At Southwestern Arizona's Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, manager Roger Di Rosa said he does not have staff to adequately monitor the well-being of endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope. The wilderness the animals once had largely to themselves has become a busy corridor for smugglers and illegal immigrants. "It is affecting them," Di Rosa said. "Watching them over time, we feel it is hampering efforts of recovery."

The refuge system's Mountain-Prairie region, which covers almost 5 million acres from the Dakotas to Colorado, has lost almost half of its 31 biological technicians, and that has deputy assistant regional director Ron Shupe especially worried about migratory birds that use wetlands in the Alamosa refuge in Colorado's San Luis Valley.

Without biological monitoring, Shupe said, employees are left to guess "when to raise and lower the water to provide correct habitat for migrating waterfowl and sand hill cranes.... If the fowl pass [the wetland], they will roost on private land, increasing exposure to hunting" and the likelihood that the birds would feed on crops.

Bill Reffalt, who was national chief of refuges in the early 1980s, said habitat degradation was a nationwide problem.

"Hundreds of millions of birds and other wildlife depend on refuges ... and if you reduce the capacity of refuges to take care of them, the animals have no place to go," he said. "They can't just go buy a plane ticket."

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