Washington, DC, Sept. 28, 2018 — There will be 20% fewer law enforcement officers policing our national wildlife refuges by the end of this year, according to an agency announcement posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This sharp drop compounds plummeting law enforcement ranks in an expanding refuge system which is experiencing record visitation and growing recreational demands.
By December 31, 2018, all Dual Function Law Enforcement Officers (DFOs, also called Collateral Duty Officers) will lose their law enforcement authority. This phase-out begins next week. Currently there are 61 dual-function slots versus 239 full-time officers. Most dual-function officers work in the ten-state Southeast Region (AL, AR, FL, GA, KY LA, MS, NC, SC, and TN) and the eight-state Mountain Prairie Region (CO, KS, MT, NE, ND, SD, UT, and WY).
For more than a century, the National Wildlife Refuge System has utilized dual-function officers whose main job is as refuge managers, biologists, foresters, or equipment operators. Generally, DFOs are on refuges with big hunting and fishing programs and perform law enforcement duties during those seasons.
“By next year, approximately half of our national wildlife refuges will have no law enforcement presence at any one time,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that there are 562 refuges covering 150 million acres, making each remaining officer responsible for patrolling an area around the size of Rhode Island. “Refuge law enforcement is already critically under-staffed, so this sizeable capacity reduction makes an already bad situation much worse.”
There are no plans or funds to replace the DFOs with more full-time officers. Since 2001, the number of refuge law enforcement officers, both full-time and dual-function, has dropped by half. Citing lack of resources, the last independent review of the refuge system counseled strongly against eliminating DFOs:
“Do not push to replace existing dual-function officers as dual-function officers will continue to play a critical role in refuge law enforcement until such time that more full-time LE officers can be hired.”
The results of a 2016 PEER survey of all refuge managers following the seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuges by a right-wing militia highlighted acute security concerns:
- Nearly two-thirds believe refuge visitors are not as safe as they were five years ago;
- Three in four view resource protection as weaker than previously; and
- One in five report members of their families or staff “have been threatened or harassed in connection with resource management policies.”
“Because of the multiple public uses of, and growing visitation to, refuges, the law enforcement role in these preserves is complex and increasingly demanding,” added Ruch, pointing to Interior Secretary Zinke’s plan to expand refuge hunting and fishing as one example of the growing demands. “We are worried that the thin green line protecting both visitor safety and refuge resources is about to snap.”