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Natural Awakenings National

National Wildlife Refuges are Overwhelmed and Understaffed

Pelican in wildlife refuge


President Theodore Roosevelt designated Florida’s Pelican Island as the first unit of what would become the National Wildlife Refuge System in 1903 to shield brown pelicans from hunters. Now, the world’s largest set of 568 refuges, encompassing 95 million acres dedicated to preserving wildlife, is under pressure from increasing numbers of visitors, maintenance needs and chronic underfunding. The system has lost more than 700 staff positions since 2011, despite growing by 15 refuges. Managers of the system under the authority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) report that staff morale is low.

Local conservation nonprofits have stepped in with fundraising and volunteers, but the lack of resources throughout the refuge system is limiting its capacity to provide healthy habitat for birds and other wildlife. Essential infrastructure is crumbling and staff can’t provide the community outreach and visitor services they want to offer. The FWS oversees 25,000 structures and 14,000 roads, bridges and dams. Many of them have fallen into disrepair due to a lack of funding. Advocates claim that a remedy will require $900 million per year, while the system’s 2020 budget was only $502.4 million. 

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