Democrats want answers on cancellation of officer program at wildlife refuges

Democrats want answers on cancellation of officer program at wildlife refuges
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Two Democratic members of Congress are asking for answers from the administration regarding news that the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is cancelling a key law enforcement program at National Wildlife Refuges.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Carol Shea-PorterCarol Shea-PorterThe 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority New Hampshire New Members 2019 Democrat Chris Pappas wins New Hampshire House seat MORE (D-N.H.) expressed their concerns about the decision to end the dual-officer program in a letter to Cynthia Martinez, the head of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

"We are concerned that removing dual status officers, even if they are replaced by some full-time officers, will lead to less geographic coverage for the more than 560 refuges across the United States and to an increase in violations in the System," the lawmakers wrote.

The Hill first broke Tuesday that FWS was ending the decade-old, dual-officer program, which trained wildlife refuge managers in law enforcement capabilities in order to police the often remote public lands.

The phase out of 51 officers managers serving as dual-officers began Monday and will continue through January, according to the FWS. The agency said 15 full time officers will be hired in 2019 to replace the dual-officers but critics fear the numbers will not be enough to patrol the millions of acres in the refuge system. 

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The nation has more than 560 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.

In their letter the lawmakers asked Martinez to provide them with more details on how FWS will replace the law enforcement roles held by the dual-function officers. They requested information on steps taken to make sure refuge managers are adequately protected by those who may wish to misuse the system and how full time officers will be distributed throughout the various refuges.

Additionally, they asked if FWS would be requesting additional funds to fill in the law enforcement gap, and what that number might be.

Recent congressional budget cuts to the National Wildlife Refuge system have lead to reduced employee and full-time officer jobs. In 2014, the system had less than 400 officers. FWS said there are currently just 230 full-time law enforcement officers.

The White House has also continued to propose cuts to the refuge system. The administration's budget for fiscal year 2019 called for an $11 million cut.