Furloughed federal workers are suddenly being ordered back to wildlife refuges across the nation during the government shutdown in part so that people can hunt, according to a manager’s email.
The order comes just ahead of next week’s annual elk hunt in Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains, one of the wildlife areas being restaffed, The Associated Press reported.
The concern about hunting comes after reports of wide-scale damage at national parks and wildlife refuges by illegal off-roading and the accumulation of trash and human waste.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has now directed 38 wildlife refuges to order their staffers to return to work to ensure that hunters and others have access to the areas despite the partial government shutdown, according to an email obtained Wednesday by AP.
Margaret Everson, the principal deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, decried lost “opportunities, including hunting” during the shutdown.
“For the next 30 days, using previously appropriated funds, we will bring back a limited number of employees to resume work on high priority projects and activities that support the Service’s mission and meet the public’s desire for access to Refuge lands,” Everson said in an email.
Barbara Wainman, assistant director for external affairs at FWS, said the paychecks of 244 employees will be funded so they can return to the refuges in order to oversee scheduled hunts, continue backlogged maintenance projects and prepare for the fire season, The Hill reported.
Meanwhile, several iconic trees of Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California have been felled by off-roading drivers aiming to open up new access to wilderness areas for their vehicles. The park was nearly closed this week due to the vandalism and trash, but then the National Park Service decided to use entrance fees for staffing to keep it and other parks operating.
Federal parklands and refuges are typically closed during government shutdowns to protect them. This time most were ordered to stay open even though at best there have been skeleton crews to protect, maintain and police them.
The National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Retirees Association on Wednesday called on President Donald Trump to either completely staff public lands or keep all national parks and wildlife refuges closed during the shutdown to protect them.
“It is simply impossible to steward these shared American treasures properly, leaving thousands of lands and waters accessible to the public with no staff on site, even for an emergency,” the groups wrote in a letter. “The adverse impacts upon our nation’s cherished lands and waters could take years to recover.”
Jeff Ruch, president of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told The Hill that the FWS decision appears to violate the terms of its own shutdown contingency plan, which allows emergency fund use only for safety and the protection of property.
“Hunting access is not needed to protect ‘property,’ in this case wildlife. I am sure the wildlife do not feel protected by being shot,” Ruch said.
Critics say that, although the administration is protecting and encouraging aggressive consumption of public land during the shutdown, there is little to nothing being done to protect wildlife and habitat. Besides accommodating hunters, the Trump administration is also continuing support for oil and gas development.on public lands.
The federal Bureau of Land Management has accepted and published 22 new drilling permit applications in Alaska, North Dakota, New Mexico and Oklahoma since the start of the shutdown, The Washington Post reported.
“It seems that the oil companies are getting services from the Department of the Interior when the public is not,” said Kelly Fuller of the advocacy group Western Watershed Project.