June 2008. US National Wildlife Refuges are supposed to protect wildlife but many refuges themselves threatened, according to a survey of refuge managers and staff by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER.
The overwhelming threat to refuges is political pressure
The overwhelming threat to all refuges, PEER says in its report, is, “political pressure to put the interests of wildlife second.” This attitude permits destructive intrusion onto refuges from industrial activities, such as mining and drilling, as well as off-road vehicle abuse, the PEER report says.
Created by Roosevelt 540 refuges across 50 states
The National Wildlife Refuge System was commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 when he designated Florida’s Pelican Island as America’s first wildlife refuge. Today the system encompasses more than 540 refuges in all 50 states.
Wildlife refuges are inhabited by more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 200 species of fish.
Based upon interviews with refuge staff, PEER identified the 10 most imperiled refuges in the United States.
Most threatened refuge – Arizona
The threatened refuges span the nation from Alaska’s Yukon to the Florida Keys, but the most threatened of all is the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.
The refuge shares a 56-mile border with Sonora, Mexico. “Failed border policy that pushes migrants to remote areas is a huge problem for refuge protection,” the PEER report states.
The Bush administration is planning to build a 700-mile double fence along the southern border of the United States, dividing the Sonoran desert and the refuge to block human migration routes. They will also impact wildlife.
The Cabeza Prieta refuge is the third largest in the United States. In 1990, over 90 percent of this refuge was designated by Congress as wilderness. To help maintain the wilderness character of the refuge, no vehicle traffic is allowed except on designated roads.
But the land of Cabeza Prieta is still deeply cut by off-road ruts created and used by smugglers and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The desert ecosystem is fragile, and tracks made by vehicles or people can remain for hundreds of years.
“The wall would be a double-edged sword for the refuge,” the PEER report states. “On one hand, it would prevent illegal immigrants, who leave garbage, create fires and abandon vehicles in the refuge that cannot easily be removed, from entering. On the other hand, the wildlife in the refuge know nothing of borders or politics, and the impact on them would be detrimental.”
Roger DiRosa, manager of the Cabeza Prieta NWR, proposes a solution to the border issue – erect vehicle barriers, allowing animals to migrate through but not motorized vehicles.
Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
Arizona has two refuges among the 10 most imperiled. The other is the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge – a grassland landscape surrounded by mountains and inhabited by pronghorns and the rare masked bobwhite quail.
Created in 1985, this refuge is increasingly at risk from reckless off-road vehicle use, especially during hunting season from fall until spring, and suffers long-term problems from border walls and militarization, refuge managers and staff told PEER.
Sally Gall, acting refuge manager of Buenos Aires says, “The increase in the use of those vehicles has been incredible. It has become a growing issue for us.”
Low funding prevents the Buenos Aires refuge from hiring enough rangers to stop illegal off-roading. Rangers say they have a hard time dealing with off-road vehicle crimes because they spend a “very high amount, 80-100 percent” of their time on border-related enforcement.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has built border walls on the southern end of the refuge, disrupting wildlife movements. But the border walls “have not stopped illegal immigration,” the PEER report says. “People use rope ladders and simply go over or around the walls.”
“Each of these threatened refuges has a different story, but they all share the peril of politics undermining the mission of wildlife protection,” said Grady Hocutt, a former long-time refuge manager who directs the PEER refuge program. “We hope that by drawing attention to the plight of these wildlife sanctuaries they stand a better chance of surviving the jeopardy they face,” said Hocutt.
While the 10 refuges profiled by PEER are facing acute threats, there appears to be widespread and growing concern among managers throughout the National Wildlife Refuge System. A 2007 PEER survey of all refuge managers found that nearly two out of three do not feel the refuge system is meeting its mission.
A majority of 57 percent of those surveyed lacks “confidence in the current leadership of the Fish and Wildlife Service.” Not a single refuge manager registers strong confidence in agency leadership. “While adequate funding is crucial, refuges absolutely cannot function without leadership support to turn back threats to their very mission,” Hocutt observed. He said, “Refuges are slices of natural habitat vital to wildlife that are especially vulnerable to the major human interferences highlighted in this report.
Recreational use on national wildlife refuges generated almost $1.7 billion in total economic activity during fiscal year 2006. The report, titled “Banking on Nature 2006: The Economic Benefits to Local Communities of National Wildlife Refuge Visitation” was compiled by Service economists.
The National Wildlife Refuge System is “operating on a starvation diet,” PEER concludes. “When challenges such as those profiled in this report arise, it is increasingly unlikely that refuges will have the resources to respond.”