A legislative tool could make criminal fines work for wildlife
For much of the last four weeks, while extremists have occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, we have focused on how sportsmen and women are being robbed of their access to hunt and fish on the refuge and how the militants’ views on public lands management are inconsistent with that of the Burns community. Now, information is being released on just how much damage the incident could inflict to ongoing conservation efforts. With refuge staff barred from the site, years of progress and millions of dollars spent combating invasion species, like common carp, could go to waste.
Fisheries biologists had already installed screens and traps that prevent the carp from moving between bodies of water to spawn in unwanted areas, but the militants’ stakeout interrupted routine maintenance of the screens. Flooding from winter weather has permitted carp again to move freely between these waters. What’s more, the growing carp population could kick up mucky water that would keep sunlight from reaching other aquatic vegetation that is a critical food source for migratory bird species like waterfowl. And when all this is over, taxpayers, including sportsmen, will pay for these losses.
Agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Park Service operate under a law called the Resource Protection Act (RPA), which allows them to benefit from fines collected after an incident like Malheur. The Fish and Wildlife Service is not eligible for RPA funds to help restore damage to the refuge, but it could be.
A bill to divert criminal fines back into the National Wildlife Refuge System has been introduced in previous sessions of Congress, but as of now, the penalties from criminal activity at Malheur will be placed directly into the National Treasury, leaving the Fish and Wildlife Service to pay for the restoration efforts without additional funds. The Malheur occupation is not the first time the refuge system has dealt with criminals jeopardizing conservation efforts. In 2005, a pipeline excavated without permission on the San Bernard NWR in Texas resulted in $7.6 million of damage to fish and wildlife habitat and $11,000 in fines went straight to the Treasury. Eleven years later, the refuge still hasn’t seen the funds to perform the necessary restorations.
Let’s not allow Bundy’s gang to leave a similar legacy at Malheur. If there’s any benefit to their attention grabbing, let it be the discussion of real solutions for funding repairs and mitigation at the refuge and for ongoing land management issues in the West.