More Than Half of Wildlife Refuges Lack Own Manager


More Than Half of Wildlife Refuges Lack Own Manager

Malheur Refuge Still Closed as Refuge System Is Hollowed out from Within

Washington, DC — More than half of the national wildlife refuges no longer have their own manager, according to a review released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Hundreds of wildlife refuges have been “complexed” – collapsed into each other – and many have no staff at all, as flat budgets are not keeping pace with both growing costs and number of refuges.

National wildlife refuges provide vital habitat for migratory birds and a host of wildlife, including many endangered species, such as the Florida panther, key deer and manatee in a state where almost all 32 of its refuges are complexed. In addition, most serve as major recreational outlets, especially for hunting and fishing. Despite their names, refuges are also used for mining, drilling and agriculture. As a result, their management is more demanding than other federal lands.

Yet, as both the size and complexity of the refuge system grows, the number of refuge staff has declined by nearly 15% in the past decade (from 3,556 full-time-equivalent [FTEs] in FY’2005 to 3,036 in FY 2015). Consequently, well more than a third of America’s wildlife refuges have no on-site staff.

That hollowing out starts at the top: Of the 743 refuges, waterfowl production areas, wetland management districts and sub-units with manager positions listed by the National Wildlife Refuge System, more than half (385) are either vacant or combined. As a result –

  • One refuge manager is responsible for 10 refuges in North Dakota; another in New York is in charge of seven refuges;
  • All six of the refuges in Rhode Island are under a single manager while, by contrast, all four refuges in Utah have their own managers; and
  • Several refuges in neighboring states are complexed into a single unit.

“The workloads imposed on remaining refuge managers are becoming unsustainable,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that most managers are responsible for more than one refuge. “With only a facade of operational capacity, our refuge system is becoming a giant Potemkim village.”

Perhaps the epitome of this institutional anemia is the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, which was easily occupied by right-wing militia since it had no staff on the premises on an early January weekend. The only refuge occupants today are cattle – allowed onto the grounds under “in-kind” arrangements with the refuge. More than seven months after the occupation ended, the refuge is still shuttered, with a website warning:

“Refuge Headquarters, including the Visitor Center/Nature Store, museum and grounds remain closed to the public. Buildings and grounds are active work sites and are closed for safety reasons.”

“Looks like the Bundy clan may have won, as the Malheur is coming to resemble their Bunkerville spread where cattle continue to graze in trespass. Maybe that was the plan all along,” added Ruch. “Like Malheur, many of our refuges are in danger of becoming abandoned husks.”


See tally of combined and vacant refuge manager slots

View total listing of refuge manager positions

Look at continuing Malheur closure

Examine demands on refuges from—
Oil & gas drilling



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