Trump administration abruptly ends key law enforcement program at wildlife refuges
The Trump administration is abruptly ending a decades-long program that trained national wildlife refuge managers with law enforcement capabilities to police often remote spots of public land.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced to employees on Sept. 21 that refuge managers who were also trained to police the area would no longer be able to act in any enforcement capacity and would be stripped of their firearm, according to an internal FWS email shared with The Hill.
Sources said the decision came as a shock to many of the people who have worked in the position, known as dual-function officers, including retirees who had spent decades in the role at their respective refuges.
Critics argued it would lead to new violations in the refuges.
“It means there will be lots of violations, wildlife violations as in over-bagged hunting areas, damaged fences, signs, roads and all kinds of damage to the environment. If there is no one there to enforce the law, that would spread like wildfire,” said Kim Hanson, who retired from FWS in 2008 after more than 30 years at the agency. “It’s an extreme disservice to the American people because they expect us to take care.”
The nation has 562 national wildlife refuges spread across 20.6 million acres of public land. Unlike national parks, mining, drilling, hunting and farming are all regulated activities on certain refuges.
“Our dual-function officers were an integral aspect of refuge management during a time that allowed for multiple functions within a single position,” stated the memo outlining the change, first obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
“In the 21st Century the threats facing visitors and wildlife are more complex than ever. 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 announcement will strip 51 refuge employees of the enforcement role in two stages between Oct. 1 and Jan. 1, according to the memo.
Hanson for years woke up as early as 4 a.m. to make sure wildfowl hunters on the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge didn’t accidentally kill protected animals or use more bullets than they were allotted.
He was there to both oversee the refuge and police land users to make sure they hunted safely and legally in a role used for decades by the Interior Department.
It was a role he said worked well because he knew the refuge and its regulations better than anyone. The program also didn’t cost the FWS any additional money, as dual-officers were not paid for their law enforcement role but were trained just as much as a full-time officer and had to undergo classes annually.
Under the new plan, he worries that full-time officers won’t be able to cover all the refuges that need policing and that the remaining refuge managers will now have to sit back and witness any violations they see.
“They just have to watch. There is nothing they can do. They can see the violation and their hands are tied,” he said.
There are 230 full-time law enforcement officers policing refuges and FWS officials say they plan to replace the vacant dual-officer positions with 15 full-time officers in 2019 as a way to modernize the enforcement ranks and save costs.
FWS says the change will take away the burden of refuge managers having to perform law enforcement duties.
“Federal Wildlife Officers are expected to perform the same full range of dangerous duties that all uniformed police officers perform. This includes conducting search warrants, eradicating marijuana grows, providing border security, arrest violent offenders and drug dealers; and assist local and state police with persons under the influence drugs and narcotics such as fentanyl and opioids,” a FWS spokesperson told The Hill in a statement. “Dual-function officers carried out their full-time non-law enforcement duties as well as conducted law enforcement on a part-time basis. They will now be enabled to focus fully on their full-time duties within the Refuge System.”
But instead of spreading relief, dual-officer veterans said the decision will likely do more harm than good.
Dozens of refuges in the short-term, they say, will now not have police, and in the long run many of those refuges will only see a law enforcement presence intermittently.
The move comes as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has increased access for more hunters and anglers across various wildlife refuges. In early September, he announced that 251,000 new acres on refuge lands would be open to hunting or fishing. By the 2018-2019 hunting season, 377 refuges will allow hunting and 312 will allow fishing.
Critics say the rollback of law enforcement officers in any capacity seems like odd timing.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Lloyd Jones, who retired from the FWS in 2013 after decades of working at multiple refuges across South Dakota as a dual-officer.
“The dual functions that have been there for decades have been extremely effective in compliance, and now it’s being taken off the table almost over night,” Jones said.
Jones spent a lot of his time at refuges in North Dakota policing neighbors to make sure they were not draining the wetlands on or near the public land.
In that capacity, he sometimes had heated or dangerous encounters with angry landowners.
He doesn’t doubt that without the dual-officers, owners will take advantage of the opportunity to break their easements and drain the wetlands, which could lead to negative environmental impacts for waterfowl and migratory birds that breed there.
“They are trying to do everything in their power to violate the terms of that easement. Once they realize there is going to be void in that law enforcement presence, there is going to be a tremendous impact — that’s a given. That’s an absolute,” he said.
But Jones’s biggest fear is what could happen to the remaining refuge managers who are now stripped of their law enforcement tools but still feel compelled to protect the lands they work on.
“The biggest fear is that some refuge person, a biologist or manager, is going to respond or react to a situation and either themselves or the public may get hurt,” he said.
“A refuge person isn’t simply going to turn their back on some kind of a situation. They will want to do something about it. And without law enforcement authority or being equipped, they are not only putting the public in danger, they are putting themselves in danger,” Jones said.