Speech by the Director, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to:
Wildlife Conservation Fund, Board of Directors
[NOTE: delivered on May 3, 1999 in Washington, DC]
First I'd like to thank Bill Horn for inviting me to come here today and talk to you about some issues that are of mutual interest to you and to us at the Fish and Wildlife Service.
I know Bill does a great job keeping you informed about what's happening in D.C. I appreciate his contributions and those of your organization. I'd like to spend a few minutes discussing some specific issues involving refuges, snow geese, trapping, the future of fishing and boating, and challenges facing our critically important law enforcement program; then I'd like to hear what's on your mind and what your priorities for us are.
As Director I've spent a lot of time on refuge and migratory bird issues. With a background in endangered species and wetlands issues, I thought issues like the spotted owl and timber harvest in the Pacific Northwest were really tough and controversial. Since becoming Director almost 2 years ago, I've dealt with issues like the extension of Mississippi's waterfowl hunting season and proposals to plow roads through wilderness refuges in Alaska. I think I clearly know the true meaning of the word controversial. Nonetheless, we have had great support as we continue to move conservation issues forward for us all.
REFUGES THANKS FOR "CARE-ING"
Moving to specifics, I'd like to start by thanking the Fund for joining the broad coalition of interest groups that put aside their differences and came together to hammer out the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997.
This legislation provided the refuge system with its first clear definition that wildlife conservation is the primary mission of the system and clear guidance that hunting, fishing, wildlife watching, nature photography, and environmental interpretation and education are to be priority uses of the system. The debates leading to the passage of the legislation were quite vigorous, especially among those whose opinions on the place of hunting in the uses of the NWRS differ, but the outcome clearly enhances the integrity of the system and at the same time protects the public's right to appropriate and compatible outdoor recreation. I expect you will all agree that by working together the interest groups came up with a real win-win recipe for the future management of this incredible network of lands.
Passage of the refuge legislation was followed almost immediately by more good news in the form of a 42 million dollar budget increase for the refuge system to address its operations and maintenance backlog, with hopes of similar increasing in the upcoming budget years. The Wildlife Legislative Fund of America played an important role in this historic increase through its participation in the Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement or CARE group.
We, at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, view CARE as one of the most encouraging developments we've seen during our careers. One of my principle goals as Director for the next few years is to strengthen the Refuge System. Having a CARE group with a similar goal working for us on the outside is an absolute godsend. I applaud your membership in CARE and encourage your continued active involvement.
Thanks to CARE and thanks to the new legislation, I think the National Wildlife Refuge System is beginning to attract the public attention and enjoy the public support it deserves as it approaches the millennium and, more importantly for us, its 100th anniversary in 2003. We are putting the final touches on what we call our "Promises" document which articulates our vision for the Refuge System's second 100 years. I'm sure it will stimulate your interest and continuing support for the refuge system.
I'd like to switch gears a bit and talk about one of the major challenges currently facing the professional wildlife management community the explosion of white geese in the mid-Continent population. This problem has been caused by changing agricultural practices that have basically spread a banquet table for white geese as they migrate through the flyway. Their numbers have grown so large from 800,000 30 years ago to more than 3.5 million today that they are quite literally destroying vast portions of their remote and fragile breeding grounds in Canada on the western shore of Hudson Bay; an area that also provides habitat for dozens of other species.
After much study and consideration, the waterfowl management community of the U.S. and Canada agreed to attempt to reduce this population by giving the states authority to extend the season for these birds and by permitting the use of unplugged shotguns and electronic calls.
Unfortunately, the Humane Society of the United States chose to oppose the weight of the scientific evidence and went to court seeking an injunction against this action. I am pleased to say that the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America intervened instantly and effectively on behalf of the government in this case and that we won. As a result of the judge's ruling, however, the Service has already begun a full Environmental Impact Statement concerning these measures. Our goal is to complete the EIS quickly enough to move ahead with needed management actions, but this kind of undertaking can be a lengthy process and I think it is unlikely that it will be completed in time to approve snow goose conservation measures by the spring of 2000.
While I can't predict what next year holds for hunters and state wildlife agencies allied on this issue, I can say that once the EIS is complete we will be able to move forward with a comprehensive management strategy that incorporates both short and long-term measures to bring mid-continent light goose populations under control.
Another hunter-related issue that has kept my phone ringing for the last couple of years has been the Service's effort to revise regulations governing
migratory bird baiting and wetland management. The final regulations should be published in the Federal Register later this month. Nonetheless, I'd like to share the basic outlines of the regs with you.
When we started this process several years ago, our main goals were to make it easier for private landowners to conserve, manage, and hunt wetland habitat without fear of violating prohibitions on hunting over bait and easier for hunters to understand when a field can be considered baited and therefore off limits to hunting, to ensure consistency in our law enforcement operations, and to ensure long-term conservation of the migratory bird resource.
The waterfowl hunting community is not a shy and retiring group and we heard from many of them throughout the process as we received literally hundreds of comments on our proposals.
I believe our final regulations reflect the fact that we listened. Our rule will help landowners who want to provide additional habitat for birds by planting natural vegetation. This will increase opportunities for hunting over restored and enhanced wetlands a crucial incentive for landowners to restore wetlands that will benefit a wide range of species.
The new rule also seeks to eliminate confusion about the types of activities considered to be baiting. Hunters will now have assurance that the inadvertent scattering of seed from standing or flooded standing crops when they enter or leave a hunting area, place decoys, or retrieve downed birds does not constitute illegal baiting.
Finally, the rule incorporates a law passed by Congress last year that eliminates strict liability for baiting offenses and instead made it unlawful for anyone to hunt with the aid of bait "if," according to the language in the bill, "the person knows or reasonably should know" that an area is baited. In summary, I think the new baiting regulations clearly reflect and recognize the importance of hunters in wetland restoration and management efforts and their contribution to the health of our migratory game bird populations.
On the trapping front, I know WCFA kept close tabs on the arduous negotiations between the U.S. and the European Union over wild fur exports to E.U. countries that began in 1995 and ended in late 1997. The resulting agreement continues U.S. fur exports to the E.U. with the understanding that U.S. authorities and trapping interests will develop Best Management Practices to improve the welfare of animals captured in trapping programs.
That effort is under way and is being supported with substantial funding under the Sport Fish and Wildlife Restoration Program I mentioned earlier, including a $620,000 grant to the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to develop a communications and outreach program to improve public understanding of the importance of furbearer management and the role of trapping.
I think we can look forward to a number of interesting developments in the trapping arena over the next few years.
FUTURE OF ANGLING AND BOATING
The Service also continues its strong commitment to enhancing angling and boating opportunities in the U.S. We recognize that boaters and anglers are the first line of defense in protecting our waterways. Of course, they also pay a sizeable chunk of our nation's conservation bill through license sales, excise taxes on boat fuels and fishing equipment, and other user fees.
One of the most exciting developments in our boating and fishing work is the recent creation of the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation. The foundation will implement a new national public outreach campaign designed to reverse recent declines in boating and fishing participation by helping more Americans learn to boat, fish and develop a commitment to conserving our nation's aquatic resources.
This five-year, $36 million campaign was authorized under the 1998 Sportfishing and Boating Safety Act and sets the stage for a communications and outreach effort unlike anything ever attempted by boating and fishing interests or, for that matter, the Service or any of us in any area of conservation. I am excited and intrigued by the challenging nature of the work this new foundation will undertake and I hope that you will become involved in related stakeholder meetings the foundation plans to hold twice a year while this project in ongoing.
In closing I'd like to bring up a subject that on more than one occasion has been the subject of intense interest by the leaders and membership of the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America -- the Service's law enforcement activity.
Aldo Leopold once said that there is no effective wildlife management without law enforcement. I agree. Law enforcement is an essential ingredient in the mix that leads to effective wildlife management and conservation. The work of the Service's special agents and wildlife inspectors helps protect endangered species, prevent habitat destruction and loss, preserve legitimate hunting and fishing opportunities, and fulfill the nation's global conservation responsibilities.
Budget stagnation, however, has seriously eroded our ability to protect the nation's wildlife and enforce the nation's wildlife laws. While spending on resource management has doubled since the 1980s, funding for law enforcement only inched up slightly and has basically flatlined over the last five years.
As a result, Service law enforcement today is a crippled force. We operate below full strength because we cannot afford to pay, equip, or support our authorized numbers of agents and inspectors. We operate at less than full capacity because we lack funds for travel, case work, even gasoline and basic safety equipment. Further, a substantial percentage of our experienced agents are facing mandatory retirement age within the next few years. We are deeply concerned about our ability to replace them and to train new agents.
To be honest, I think we are shortchanging the resource we protect and the public we serve. The criminals we deal with today are well-organized, well-funded smuggling rings preying on rare species for profit, greed-driven guiding operations that exploit hunters and our native wildlife, and corporations and companies that ignore their responsibilities to the environment and the public. They are conducting a war on wildlife ...and they are winning.
Over the coming year, we in the Fish and Wildlife Service will be working with the Administration, the Congress, and our partners throughout the conservation community to promote the need to restore and rebuild federal wildlife law enforcement. Only by fielding a full and fully equipped force can we protect wildlife from illegal commercial exploitation, safeguard recreational opportunities, facilitate legal wildlife trade and commerce, continue to build on the innovative policing and partnership efforts of recent years, and ensure the fair and effective enforcement of our laws and regulations.
Service law enforcement could certainly benefit from the type of support that has worked such wonders for the National Wildlife Refuge System. I invite the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America and the Wildlife Conservation Fund of America to learn more about the federal wildlife law enforcement effort. I will be glad to work with Bill or whomever you would like to arrange whatever briefings might be helpful in increasing your understanding of what I think is becoming a crisis with potentially devastating impact on wildlife resources worldwide and of the actions needed to prevent it.
I thank you for hearing me out and will be glad to take questions.