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New report: Wildlife refuges are suffering from budget crunch

Staff report • May 5, 2007 at 10:39 AM

Ducks Unlimited, along with a diverse group of conservation partners, on Wednesday released a report about the ailing national wildlife refuges.

The report details the short- and long-term effects of shrinking budgets and seeks basic funding for day-to-day operations and maintenance for the refuges.

The report was done by the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement, a coalition of 21 organizations including DU.

"Waterfowlers and other conservationists have a long history of supporting conservation by purchasing federal duck stamps to fund land acquisition for the national wildlife refuges," said Scott Sutherland, director of DU's governmental affairs office. "But simply covering basic expenses has become difficult and now threatens the refuge system's ability to improve and manage habitat for fish and wildlife."

The nation's 546 refuges and waterfowl production areas are the federal government's primary land base for providing habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. These areas provide important habitat for breeding, migrating and wintering waterfowl and access for hunting and other recreational opportunities.

A healthy refuge system is a principal responsibility of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and plays an important role in the long-term conservation of migratory bird populations.

"As habitat loss continues, it is critical that these refuges are actively managed to maximize their benefit for wildlife," Sutherland added. "DU often partners with many of the refuges to restore and maintain wetlands and associated habitats."

Congress has worked to cut the backlog, but the needs of the system have outstripped the ability to keep pace with operations and maintenance.

Despite budget increases a few years ago, a relatively flat budget in recent years and a staggering $2.5 billion backlog of maintenance and operations projects have forced the USFWS to cut staffing by 20 percent.

Those cuts have resulted in habitat management, educational programs, law enforcement and maintenance work being neglected, DU officials said. Hunting and fishing opportunities on some refuges have also been cut back due to the financial problems.

According to the USFWS, the refuge system needs an additional $15 million annually just to keep up with fixed costs and inflation. The new report estimates that it would take $765 million annually to meet essential staffing needs and stabilize the operations and maintenance backlog of the refuge system.

Two Boone County men are facing 22 counts each of illegally selling 21 paddlefish carcasses and 12½ pounds of paddlefish eggs after an operation conducted by Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources conservation officers, U.S. marshals and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents.

Officers seized the protected carcasses and eggs and then arrested Matthew A. Schoder, 43, and Nicholas C. Schoder, 29, both of Florence, Ky. Officers arrested the men April 23 at the Pilot truck stop in the community of Pendleton in Henry County, and then lodged them in the Carroll County Regional Detention Center.

The men, who allegedly took the paddlefish from the Ohio River below Mehldahl dam in Bracken County, are scheduled to appear May 7 before Henry County District Judge Diana Wheeler.

Poachers are beginning to target Kentucky's paddlefish, which are prized for their roe and seen by many as a replacement for Caspian Sea sturgeon caviar. The sea sturgeon have been depleted by over-fishing.

The carcasses and roe seized April 23 have a street value of about $1,100.

The men could face fines of as much as $22,000 each plus court costs since penalties carry fines ranging from $100 to $1,000 for each count.

Jim Habera, a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency fisheries biologist, will discuss the results of recent trout surveys in Northeast Tennessee streams in this month's meeting of the Overmountain Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

The meeting is set for May 10 at Sunny's Cafeteria at 601 Spring Street in Johnson City. Dinner is at 6 p.m. with a short business meeting at 7. The program will follow at 7:15.

Members of the general public are invited to attend.

Trout Unlimited is a national organization with the mission to conserve, protect and restore North America's trout and salmon streams and related watersheds.

There are about 500 chapters with more than 135,000 members nationwide. There are eight chapters in Tennessee, and the Overmountain Chapter has more than 200 members from throughout the region.

Brian Leonard and Benny Neal boated 18.52 pounds of bass to win the April 29 BAIT tournament on South Holston Lake.

Leonard and Neal pocketed $1,090 for their winning catch..

Rodney Ray and Willie Browning took second - and a $810 payday - with 18.15 pounds, including a 4.99 smallmouth good for a bonus of $245. Jim Neece Jr. and Matt Lewis took third with 17.71 pounds.

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