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Report: Staff shortages hamper US wildlife refuges

FILE - This March 23, 2016, file photo shows part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., A new report from a nonprofit alliance of public employees, law enforcement and land managers says rampant staff shortages at the nation's system of federal wildlife refuges are harming public access and preventing them from doing their mission to preserve wildlife. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP, File)

FILE - This March 23, 2016, file photo shows part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., A new report from a nonprofit alliance of public employees, law enforcement and land managers says rampant staff shortages at the nation's system of federal wildlife refuges are harming public access and preventing them from doing their mission to preserve wildlife. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Hundreds of national wildlife refuges that provide critical habitat for migratory birds and other species are crippled by a staffing shortage that has curtailed educational programs, hampered the fight against invasive species and weakened security at facilities that attract nearly 50 million visitors annually, a group of public employees and law enforcement said Wednesday.

Staffing at the nation's 565 wildlife refuges and related properties shrank nearly 15 per cent in the past decade, and more than one-third of those locations don't have any staff on site, the Washington, D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said. More than half of the refuges no longer have their own manager and have been combined into massive "complexes" that are overseen by someone who might be hundreds of miles away, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the non-profit alliance.

The report raises concerns about low staffing levels given the recent armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in remote southeast Oregon. More than two dozen occupied the refuge's headquarters in January, launching a 41-day standoff with authorities that ended two weeks after one of them was fatally shot.

The occupiers were protesting the prosecution of two ranchers who set fires on federal lands. Seven of them are now on trial in federal court in Portland.

The crisis set off alarm bells and prompted officials to spend $6 million from an already tight budget to move law enforcement officers to preserves scattered in remote locations across the West, said David Houghton, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. Many refuges are patrolled by a single officer who covers several states.

Some refuge managers have since sent their law enforcement officers to additional training or updated security plans.

"People are paying attention to that whole dynamic. I only have one law enforcement officer here and she covers the entire range of refuges, and she's by herself," said Michelle Potter, who manages seven refuges and three other habitats in and around Long Island, New York. "I worry about safety."

Vanessa Kauffman, a spokesman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, declined to comment on the study but did acknowledge a tight budget in a phone interview with the AP. The agency oversees the refuge system.

"The budget determines the staff, and if you have attrition and you have a shortened budget, you're not going to be able to replace staff," said Kauffman. "We do what we can."

The refuges, as well as 178 other federally protected areas dedicated to waterfowl habitat and wetland preservation, attract 47.5 million visitors a year for bird-watching, hunting, fishing and educational activities, but their primary mission is the preservation of critical habitat for fragile species. Many, but not all, are in remote areas.

Because they are focused on wildlife preservation, refuges are less well known by the public than their flashier, selfie-friendly cousins at the National Park Service, yet they have expanded rapidly in recent years as funding has shrunk.

Since 2010, the overall refuge budget dropped by $17 million to $486 million while the system added more than 700 million acres, said Houghton.

Much of that expansion comes from the addition of two massive marine monuments, including one designated in the Atlantic Ocean last week by President Barack Obama that includes 5,000 square miles of underwater canyons and mountains off the New England coast.

Meanwhile, existing refuges are struggling to complete their mission with a staff so pared down that some can't keep on volunteers because there's no one to manage them.

In Rhode Island, for example, a refuge complex cut educational programs for school children by 20 per cent , lost its visitor centre manager and hasn't been able to treat huge swaths of land for invasive species.

Charlie Vandemoer oversees five refuges in Rhode Island but has security from only one officer who also patrols refuges in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

He relies on more than 23,000 volunteer hours a year to get the most critical work done and recently sent his solitary law enforcement officer for additional training.

"If it wasn't for volunteers, they'd have to shut the doors," said Marvin Plenert, a retired manager in Portland who used to oversee the Western region. "It's pathetic, is what it is."

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This version of the story corrects the spelling of Marvin Plenart to Marvin Plenert.