tampabay.com

Wildlife refuge staff is reduced

By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published December 18, 2006


CRYSTAL RIVER - Jim Kraus knows about trying to do more with less.

As manager of the sprawling Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Kraus and his staff are responsible for managing five wildlife refuges spread over 31,000 acres stretching from Pinellas County up through Crystal River.

In that wide-ranging job, he must protect two of the highest profile endangered species around: the manatee and the whooping crane.

On any given day, that might mean his sole law enforcement officer might be enforcing manatee sanctuaries in Kings Bay, or he could be building the pen that holds the whooping cranes during their winter at Chassahowitzka.

Running the refuge complex means staffing the office on Kings Bay Drive, providing public education about the refuges and their diverse wildlife, talking to dive shops about their important role protecting manatees, and keeping a handle on all aspects of the habitats the refuge complex protects.

The job is soon going to get even harder.

As part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southeast Region's effort to tighten its belt, Kraus will lose a staff member.

In this case it will be Sarah Palmisano, who has been a jack-of-all-trades at the refuge office for the past several years.

She has most recently been the acting assistant refuge manager. But she has done most of the other office jobs, and her co-workers see her as their technical go-to person, as well as the one staff member who can get all things with a deadline done in time.

The cut brings the full-time staff to just nine.

Across Florida, the fish and wildlife service plan includes 21 cuts in staff including biologists, rangers, ecologists and administration employees.

"There are going to be a lot of empty chairs" around the refuge system, Kraus said.

While Kraus does not know yet specifically what services might evaporate because of the staffing cut, he said that everyone left will just have to do more.

"It's only going to get worse," Kraus said. "It all translates into what is not going to get done."

Refuge meets reality

The Chassahowitzka complex operates on a budget that has fluctuated from about $800,000 to $1.4-million, Kraus said.

The refuge has been criticized for failing to protect manatees by not enforcing existing rules. But Kraus has just the one law enforcement officer.

Others have argued that new manatee protections aren't needed in the area; rather, education will fix any problems with manatee harassment.

But education programs might be on the chopping block, as well.

"Things have been fairly lean to begin with," Kraus lamented. "Now we're going to have to adjust to the harsh reality."

While Kraus takes the deep breath and tries to sort out how all the work will get done, those in his support organization, the Friends of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge are itching to find a way to make it better.

They recently contacted U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, seeking her help.

Last week that help came - in the form of a letter signed by Brown-Waite and seven other members of Florida's congressional delegation.

They urged Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne to up the funding for Florida's wildlife refuges.

The letter details what will be lost in several refuges across the state, noting harm to both the manatee protection in Crystal River and the whooping crane project in Chassahowitzka.

The letter also explains that cutting the budgets of refuges hurts the community. A recent study showed that every dollar spent on Chassahowitzka, generated $7 in recreational expenditures in the local economy.

"Because of major funding shortfalls for staff, our refuges are no longer able to support their most basic mission," the letter states. "Without adequate funding for our refuges, the wildlife that depend on these important habitats and the public that values these treasures for recreation and education will suffer."

More discussion urged

With the same kinds of cuts planned in other regions of the country, other support organizations also have jumped into action.

When groups in New Jersey asked for help from their congressional delegation, the letter that request generated was not as diplomatic as the one signed in Florida.

There, the congressmen said, "we believe that the Department of the Interior is perilously close to abrogating its responsibility under the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 and National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997.

"By law, the Department of the Interior is charged with administering the National Wildlife Refuge System. But the lack of staff and resources for our refuges will make this duty impossible to fulfill."

That strongly worded letter has generated considerable discussion about the funding crisis in New Jersey and local refuge supporters hope Brown-Waite's letter can do the same for Florida.

This area, in particular, cannot afford a smaller refuge staff, according to Jim Green, past president of the Friends of Chassahowitzka.

The refuge system has never provided special funding necessary to pay for important pieces of both manatee protection and crane projects, according to Kraus.

"The problem is very real. This will likely affect manatee protection in Kings Bay with one less employee," Green said. "And the whooping crane project, this has been the jewel of man's attempt to save an almost extinct species."

Funding for flights

John Peterlin, secretary of the Friends, said that Kraus is so short-staffed that he cannot even allow the organization's members to help out with projects because there is no one to provide required limited supervision.

"It ties our hands," Peterlin said.

One area where Kraus is especially strapped is in funding for aerial surveys that are conducted every other week to count manatees and identify where they congregate.

"It boggles my mind that the refuge system can't afford aerial flights," Green said.

The agency told Kraus he had to continue the flights but they wouldn't pay for them, Peterlin said.

"So he robs Peter to pay Paul and Peter is broke," he said.

In the past the Save the Manatee Club helped with those expenses but that was before the club sued the fish and wildlife service for failing to adequately protect the endangered marine mammals.

Green said the Friends have vowed to begin a fund to help pay for the flights.

During a meeting Kraus conducted last week with both Manatee Watch volunteers and dive shop operators, some in the business community talked about possibly finding ways to help with those survey costs, according to Mary Craven, the county's tourism development manager who attended the session.

"There was a lot of interest there," she said.

Green said he would be following up on that interest and "shaking all the trees" to see what other individuals, grants or businesses might be able to help.

Peterlin said he knows that others in the community want to help too.

He said the Friends encourage them to contact their congressional representative and urge a strong push to give refuges the resources they need.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendt@sptimes.com.