WASHINGTON (CN) – Wildlife refuge managers, the people who police illegal hunting, fishing, trapping and pollution, among other stewardship duties, are being phased out, according to an internal memo obtained by a federal watchdog.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, were first to obtain the September 21 memo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which laid out a two-stage strategy to decommission the Interior’s 115-year old refuge law enforcement program.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wildlife refuge managers perform much of the same duties that uniformed police officers do, in addition to their stewardship duties.
Since they are often stationed in remote swaths of lands, the gun-toting officers conduct search warrants, monitor borders, assist local and state police with drug busts, clear out areas where marijuana is grown illegally and have the authority to carry out arrests.
But according to a memo issued by Cynthia Martinez, chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, to regional refuge chiefs in eight zones, the law-enforcement function of wildlife refuge managers will be phased out completely by the year’s end.
“In the 21st century, the threats facing visitors and wildlife are now more complex than ever,” Martinez wrote. “Protection of the National Wildlife Refuge System now requires a full-time officer corps that combines a concentrated effort on conservation protection, traditional policing and emergency first response to protect, serve and educate the public and service staff.”
The official decommissioning of more experienced, higher-pay grade officers began on Tuesday and will continue on a rolling basis through Dec. 31.
“All other current dual function officers will cease carrying out law enforcement duties on January 1, 2019,” Martinez wrote.
According to PEER, there are currently 61 dual-function officer slots versus 239 full time officers.
The majority of dual function officers are stationed in 18 states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.
The cutbacks come at a time when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has expanded access to hunters and anglers at wildlife refuges throughout the United States.
Last month, Zinke announced the opening of an additional 251,000 acres for hunting and fishing and expanded access for both activities at 377 and 312 refuge sites respectively.
The move to reduce law enforcement at a time when parks and refuges are experiencing their heaviest visitation levels seen in years is risky, according to Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director.
“Because of the multiple public uses and growing visitation to refuges, the law enforcement role in these preserves is complex and increasingly demanding,” Ruch said in a statement. “We are worried that the thin green line protecting both visitor safety and refuge resources is about to snap.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not made any indication that officer numbers will be replenished at a later time.
The service did not immediately return request for comment Wednesday.
After Ammon Bundy’s armed seizure of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, PEER conducted a formal survey of all refuge managers in 2017.
The group found nearly 75 percent surveyed believed refuge visitors were not as safe as they might have been just five years ago.
According to the survey, 1 in 5 managers reported that they, members of their staff or even members of their family were on the receiving end of threats and other harassment related to the department’s resource management policies.