Wildlife Refuge SOS

CONFESSION time. Twenty some years ago, a young naval aviator who looks a lot like me (minus the beard) gleefully skittered around the Nevada desert at high speed and low altitude, scattering wildlife and practice bombs. Aside from his own hide - a mid-air collision with a goose at 500 knots can ``ruin your whole day,'' as the squadron jokesters put it - our young hotshot didn't think much about the birds, goats, tortoises, or wild horses who made their home there. Like the backpackers and ranchers and other groundlings, they were just spectators along thrill-a-minute training routes accurately called ``sandblowers.''

The problem with United States Navy operations at Fallon, Nev., is that they happen over, around, and often through federal wildlife refuges, including crucial rendezvous points for migratory waterfowl along the Pacific flyway. And the bigger problem is that the situation is not unique.

A recent investigation for the New York Zoological Society found that most of the nation's 456 wildlife refuges are in a sorry state, ``polluted by poisons of all sorts, deprived of water, and populated not only by animals but by miners, loggers, boaters, oil prospectors, farmers, ranchers, beekeepers, hunters, field-dog judges, fur trappers, jeep jockeys, even the military.''

``Short of testing hydrogen bombs,'' concluded John Mitchell, the report's author, ``there is almost nothing you can't do in a national wildlife refuge.'' Until recently, that included fox hunters riding to hounds.

Sadder still, this is no great revelation. The General Accounting Office (Congress's investigative arm) two years ago surveyed the National Wildlife Refuge System and reported at least one harmful activity occurring on 59 percent of the refuges. As a result of the GAO report, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (which oversees the refuge system) did its own audit and found illegal or questionable activities on 63 percent of them. It took a Freedom of Information Act request by the Wilderness Society to mak e that public.

Begun in 1903 by Teddy Roosevelt, the national refuge system covers 91.3 million acres. Most of it is in Alaska, but refuges are spread over 49 states from vast areas of the West to a small unit less than an hour from midtown Manhattan. Their purpose is to protect wildlife habitat, but other uses often compete with preservation. Jet skiers in the Key West, Fla., refuge are disrupting osprey rookeries and the only known breeding colony of frigate birds in the United States. Agricultural runof f turned the Kesterson refuge in central California into a toxic cesspool that has killed thousands of birds and fish.

As economic development and recreational pressures grew over the years, the encroachment spread. Under the Ronald Reagan-James Watt team, refuge managers in the 1980s were ordered to step up mining and other economic activities. Meanwhile, sufficient resources to protect wildlife were not forthcoming from White House pursekeepers. The total budget for national-refuge field stations would barely cover the cost of a couple of those Navy jets kicking up the sand and cactus in Nevada. Barely half the refuge s have any staff or budget at all. They are checked on infrequently and thus vulnerable to misuse.

``The undeniable point is: The National Wildlife Refuge System is vastly underfunded and understaffed to accomplish its mission,'' William Reffalt told a congressional committee earlier this year. Mr. Reffalt worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service for 23 years and is now with the Wilderness Society.

Another part of the problem is competing interests among those who want to protect and expand refuges. Hunters want more game. Environmentalists oppose killing for sport and want to save the animals.

The good news is, there are efforts to turn the situation around. Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the house subcommittee on fisheries and wildlife conservation, is pushing a bill that would limit inappropriate activity on refuges. Fish and Wildlife Service director John Turner vows to have the refuge system cleaned up by its centennial in the year 2003. The agency is now holding public hearings around the country.

Given changing US demographics, more economic development and motorized recreation seem inevitable - especially in populated areas close to important wildlife habitat.

All the more reason to protect those wildlife refuges set aside (among other reasons) to remind us why we're the dominant species.

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