Green group hits administration over staff cuts that hamper wildlife refuge visitor center

Green group hits administration over staff cuts that hamper wildlife refuge visitor center
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An environmental group is criticizing the Trump administration for staff cuts that are causing a national wildlife refuge visitor center to close down two days a week during the busy summer months.

The National Bison Range in Montana — the 10th most visited refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System — announced its visitor center will no longer be open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, despite the park still being open to guests.

In a letter sent Monday to Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeUS to approve import of black rhino killed in hunt Zinke must change direction and support conservation Energy development will likely land one bird on the Endangered Species list MORE, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) argued that recent steps taken by the overseeing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office to diminish staff at the park to 4.5 on-site staff hurt the integrity of the refuge.

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"The Denver regional office of the Fish & Wildlife Service has taken several steps designed to obliterate the programmatic integrity and cripple the operational effectiveness of the National Bison Range," the letter says. 

PEER noted that the current staff rate is less than a third of what it was 15 years ago and less than half assigned just five years ago. The group also noted that of the current staff, two members are interns and a visitor services manager position has remained vacant since 2014.

“Closing a visitor center on days when hundreds of people are visiting is unprecedented. Denying them access to even basic visitor amenities, like the public bathrooms, is inexplicable,” the letter signed by PEER  Executive Director Jeff Ruch reads.

In April 2017, Zinke halted an Obama-era plan to transfer the Montana land to tribal control under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, saying that the National Bison Range was critical.

"As Secretary, my job is to look 100 years forward at all of Interior's resources. I recognize the Bison Range is a critical part of our past, present and future, which is why I have changed course," he said in a statement at the time.

Zinke previously served as a Montana congressman.

Other changes to the refuge include the closure of its bookstore, the ending of a volunteer program last October and refuge-sponsored visitor services programs for schools, according to PEER.

The Interior Department did not return a request for comment.

Bison management on parklands was also noted recently by the outgoing superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, Dan Wenk.

Wenk said he believed he was being forced out of leading the Wyoming park that borders Montana due to his position on healthy bison heard numbers.

In an interview with The Hill, Wenk said he had "animated" conversations with Zinke due to disagreements over the proper number of Bison that should be allowed in the park. Zinke believed that the numbers were too high and unsustainable. Wenk disagreed, arguing that the average population of 4,400 was a healthy size.

Ranchers commonly argue that the high numbers are detrimental to their property that skirts the national park. 

Wenk said he thought he had worked through the disagreements when he found out he was being reassigned, an action he believes to be retribution.

"I assumed, because I believed we were doing the right thing to follow the mission of the National Park Service, I thought science was going to win the day," he said. Wenk now has to decide whether to take the newly assigned Washington, D.C.-based job by August or retire.

The National Park Service did not return The Hill's request for comment.