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Mighty lean times for wildlife refuges

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

Refuge funding, now about $380 million annually, has remained relatively flat since 2003, while salaries and other operating costs have risen. Anticipating that domestic security, hurricane relief, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will remain higher priorities, officials are preparing to trim 75 regional and headquarters office jobs and 248 more field jobs in the next couple of years. That means the field staff will have been cut by one-sixth since fiscal 2004.

“I told them [managers] we can no longer do more with less if we are going to have quality delivery,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall said in a telephone interview. “We are going to have to do less with less and make ... intelligent management decisions.... We are going to come out of this with a strong wildlife system.”

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Battling invaders

But many refuge managers aren’t so sure. Nearly two-thirds of them, responding to a recent survey by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the refuge system is not accomplishing its missions.

“I’ve been with this agency 30 years and have seen ups and downs, but I have never seen anything like this,” said Patricia Martinkovic, manager of the Minnesota Valley refuge near Minneapolis.

After losing 20% of her staff, Martinkovic said, the refuge is drastically reducing the mowing of 35 miles of trails, prescribed burning for fire protection and invasive plant control.

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“Fast forward it a few years and you will see that wetlands have basically filled in with [invasive plants] and will not see that nice vista of egrets and trumpeter swans,” Martinkovic said.

The Southeast, with 128 refuges, has been particularly hard-hit by cuts.

President Theodore Roosevelt founded the first refuge at 5.5-acre Pelican Island on the east coast of Florida to protect birds. By the system’s centennial celebration there in 2003, the refuge had expanded to 5,400 acres with a staff of six.

The staff is about to be cut to two. No biologists work at the refuge even though the staff is responsible for looking after the country’s largest concentration of threatened loggerhead and endangered green sea turtles nesting at a nearby refuge. “It is a little oasis of species diversity,” said manager Paul Tritaik, “because lots of Florida is growing tremendously.”

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Managers have been doing whatever they can to keep the refuges running. They have relied more heavily on volunteers, sought outside funding sources and have done manual labor themselves, such as laying pipe for wetland management and mending fences to keep cattle out of fragile habitat.

At South Carolina’s Cape Romain, budget cuts have forced the refuge manager to choose between two successful programs: one that nurtures threatened loggerhead turtles and another that has helped bring back the nearly extinct red wolf.

Manager Donny Browning said he favored the turtles because nests on the refuge produce a quarter of the loggerheads hatched north of Florida. “That program is so vital,” he said.

For two decades, the coastal refuge also was an integral part of efforts to save the red wolf, which had dwindled to fewer than 20 animals. Wolf pups bred on Bulls Island in the refuge, then reintroduced to wolf habitat in the region, proved better at surviving alligators and other hazards than wolves from captive-breeding programs.

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But about two years ago, the program was halted -- and the wolves were removed from the island. Although the red wolf has rebounded to around 300 animals, most are in captivity, and the total population is about 250 shy of the recovery goal.

Now Bud Fazio, the biologist who heads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red Wolf Recovery Program, said plans for more budget cuts threaten the remaining offshore breeding program at St. Vincent Island in Florida. If there is no biologist available, Fazio said, “We will have to take wolves off that island as well and will have no source of wild-raised wolves to reintroduce unless we can establish one elsewhere.”

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tim.reiterman@latimes.com

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