Las Vegas Sun

May 6, 2021

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At Southern Nevada wildlife refuges, low staffing a constant challenge

Desert National Wildlife Refuge

Steve Marcus

A view of the visitors center at the Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of Las Vegas Friday, Dec. 13, 2019.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge

A view of walking trails behind the visitor center at the Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of Las Vegas Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. Launch slideshow »

For the past 19 years, Amy Sprunger has served as the manager of Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the largest national wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states. In January, she will be the only employee working at the 1.6-million acre refuge.

Established in 1936 to protect endangered desert bighorn sheep, the massive refuge northwest of Las Vegas is severely understaffed, according to employees and advocates for the national wildlife refuge system. Desert National Wildlife Refuge is supposed to have three full-time employees, but even that staffing level is “barely enough to scratch the surface” of the refuge’s biological and ecological resources, Sprunger said.

Southern Nevada’s other wildlife refuges — Moapa Valley, Ash Meadows and Pahranagat — face similar deficiencies. Ash Meadows in the Amargosa Valley has three full-time staff, Pahranagat in Lincoln County has two and Moapa Valley near Valley of Fire State Park shares one of Pahranagat’s employees, Sprunger said.

Established in 1903 as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Refuge System aims to conserve, manage and restore important habitats to support biodiversity and connect the public with nature. But for the last decade, funding has been decreasing or remaining stagnant and failing to keep up with inflation and the rising cost of living, said Caroline Brouwer, vice president of government affairs at the nonprofit National Wildlife Refuge Association.

System-wide refuge funding reached an all-time high in fiscal year 2010 at $503 million for the country’s 562 refuges, Brouwer said. By comparison, funding for fiscal year 2019 was $488 million. Today, she says that over half of all refuges have no dedicated full-time staff.

“It’s not new with the Trump administration. It has been a trend,” said Marge Kolar, who oversaw all refuges in Nevada and California from 1994 to 2013.

The Trump administration’s proposed fiscal year 2020 budget for the refuge system is $509.5 million, the highest amount ever requested, but that number is still below what Brouwer estimates it should be based on inflation.

“If funding had stayed level and kept pace with those inflationary costs in 2010, the refuge system would be funded at about $575 million right now,” Brouwer said. “So, you can see it’s a $90+ million loss in the last 10 years, what the refuge system has had to absorb.”

At Desert National Wildlife Refuge, limited funding means that Sprunger and other employees — when she has them — do a multitude of managerial and administrative tasks. Sprunger hopes to hire a biologist within the next few months after going more than a year without one. Meanwhile, the maintenance employee at the refuge is retiring at the end of December, likely leaving Sprunger as the only employee for at least most of January, she said.

In light of its tenuous staffing, the refuge’s approximately 20 regular volunteers pick up a lot of slack.  

“We wouldn’t be able to open our front doors without the volunteers, that’s for sure,” Sprunger said.

Throughout all four Southern Nevada refuges, connected as part of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex, volunteers do the equivalent amount of work of about eight full-time employees and greatly outnumber actual employees, said Kevin DesRoberts, deputy project leader for the complex. Nonetheless, paid employees are still overworked, affecting both visitor experiences and habitat management, DesRoberts said.

“Controlling and treating invasive plant species in particular is a constant battle,” he said.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge’s past biologists have only had time to study the desert bighorn sheep, despite that the refuge contains other important resources, Sprunger said. Even the annual surveys of the bighorn sheep population are challenging because most of the refuge isn’t accessible by vehicle and helicopter trips are costly, she said. 

“It’s a big area, so there’s probably tons of stuff going on out there that may have changed in the last 20, 50 or 100 years,” Sprunger said.   

Visitors flock to the refuge to hike, spot wildlife, take photographs and hunt, which is allowed with a valid hunting permit from the state, Sprunger said. While all four refuges share two law enforcement officers to ensure hunters comply with regulations, those officers have been sent to patrol the southern border at various points under the Trump administration, DesRoberts said. 

Happening at wildlife refuges across the country, the deployments last for several weeks at a time, according to Brouwer. Most refuges don’t have enough staff already and sending them to the southern border means that enforcement of hunting quotas and other rules could fall by the wayside, she said.

“They’re taking away law enforcement from refuges that really need them,” Brouwer said.

While Desert National Wildlife Refuge has recently gotten national attention because of a controversial proposal from the U.S. Air Force to take over two-thirds of the refuge, national wildlife refuges in general are not well-known or well-understood, Brouwer said. That could be part of the reason why funding has suffered.

“People talk about (national) parks all the time and the parks are decently well-funded,” she said. “The refuge system doesn’t have the visitors that the parks do, and I think that contributes to this.”

About 55,713 people visited Pahranagat, 52,964 visited Desert National, 42,750 visited Ash Meadows and 902 visited Moapa Valley in fiscal year 2018, DesRoberts said. By comparison, over 1.6 million people visited Death Valley National Park and over 3 million visited Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in 2018.

Sprunger hasn’t noticed a change in visitation at Desert National Wildlife Refuge in light of the publicity surrounding the Air Force’s proposed base expansion, but people do seem interested in visiting parts of the refuge that the proposal would impact, she said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not support the Air Force’s proposal.

“I’ve heard any number of people make comments like, ‘I want to make sure I drive Alamo Road before it might be inaccessible again,’” Sprunger said.

One of the best ways to support Nevada’s wildlife refuges is to visit them, DesRoberts emphasized. The more that people connect to their public lands, the more likely it is that those lands will continue to be conserved for future generations, he said.  

Perhaps greater visitation and appreciation for the refuges could lead to changes in funding, he added.

“Not only for these refuges, but really for all of them in the system, we need more people to get the work done on behalf of the American people,” DesRoberts said.