Trump administration to restaff key wildlife refuges to continue hunts

The Trump administration plans to restaff 38 wildlife refuges during the government shutdown in order to continue to provide “opportunities, including hunting," according to an internal email obtained by The Hill.

Margaret Everson, principal deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), announced to employees Tuesday that some furloughed employees will be brought back to staff refuges, and in some instances open the visitor centers, at key refuges in order to protect jeopardized natural resources.

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“While many of our refuges have remained accessible, but not staffed, the extended lapse in federal appropriations is impacting both our ability to serve the public and to protect natural resources under our care in some places,” Everson wrote in the email first reported by The Associated Press.

Barbara Wainman, assistant director for external affairs at FWS, said the decision will fund the paychecks of 244 FWS employees to return to refuges in order to continue maintenance backlog projects, oversee scheduled upcoming hunts and prepare for the upcoming fire season.

Wainman said the agency will pull from previously appropriated funds under fiscal 2018 they call carryover, as well as some entrance fee revenue. She said the agency will not be “moving money around” in order to fund the services. They estimate that the total of $2.5 million in venue will be able to fund the refuges for 30 days.

“We had available carryover resources to do this work and I think we wanted to be able to get our staff back on to fulfill their mission and provide these resources to the American public,” Wainman told The Hill.

“We are confident we have sufficient resources to get us through the next 30 days.”

If the shutdown continues past the 30 day mark, she said the agency would have to consider new options.

Refuges that will soon see restaffing include Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains, the Midway Atoll in Hawaii,  and Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually in Washington, according to the email. In Wichita Mountains the annual winter elk hunt is currently underway.

Only four of the refuges will partially rely on the revenue pulled in from entrance fees, according to Wainman. Those are Kilauea Point in Hawaii and Florida’s J.N. “Ding” Darling, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee and Merrick Island refuges.

The agency pulled in nearly $7 million in fee revenues in fiscal 2017. Refuges took in the least amount of fee revenue of all Interior Department bureaus, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The visitor centers located in the 567 refuges have up until now shuttered under the shutdown, according to the agency’s closure determination notice. “As of December 26, 2018, all units of the National Wildlife Refuge System nationwide are closed to public visitation and use,” the notice reads. The guidelines say all members of the public previously at refuges would be made to vacate.

But visitor access has remained open, according to Wainman, who said in many instances it’s hard to close off the thousands of acres of refuge land. She added that hunters were still able to access refuges under the shutdown.

Jeff Ruch, president of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the FWS announcement appears to violate the terms of its own shutdown contingency plan.

The 2019 plan notes that the Anti-Deficiency Act stipulates emergency funds can be provided for “‘emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.' However, ‘emergencies involving the safety of human life and the protection of property’ do not ‘include the ongoing, regular functions of government, the suspension of which would not imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property.’”

“Hunting access is not needed to protect ‘property’ in this case [being] wildlife. I am sure the wildlife do not feel protected by being shot,” Ruch said.

“If anything, hunting access without full levels of staffing may pose a danger to ‘the safety of human life.’"

The FWS’s decision to send staff to reopen refuges comes the same week the National Park Service (NPS) announced that it would be pulling from park visitor fee revenues to send employees back to certain parks. National Parks were previously been left open and accessible to the public under the shutdown, despite the furloughing of the majority of NPS staff.

The FWS pulls in significantly less revenues from visitor fees that national parks. Refuges took in the least amount of fee revenue of all Interior bureaus, according to the Congressional Research Service.