WASHINGTON — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is directing dozens of wildlife refuges, including DeSoto north of Omaha, to return staffers to work to make sure hunters and others have access despite the government shutdown, according to an email obtained Wednesday by the Associated Press.
The partial restaffing of 38 wildlife refuges angered wildlife groups, who accused the Trump administration of trying to minimize the public impact of the 19-day-old shutdown to limit the political blowback for President Donald Trump. Trump and Democrats in Congress are locked in a dispute over Trump’s demand for billions of dollars for a wall on the southern U.S. border.
The shutdown has forced federal agencies to stop issuing paychecks for hundreds of thousands of government employees. Government services largely have been limited to the most pressing, such as Transportation Security Administration workers providing security at airports without pay.
Margaret Everson, principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, cited “opportunities, including hunting” that are being lost in the shutdown. In an email, she said 38 wildlife refuges will bring back some furloughed staff using carryover funds. One of them is DeSoto, which is in Iowa about 30 miles north of Omaha.
Calls to DeSoto from The World-Herald on Wednesday were not answered.
The Interior Department — which oversees wildlife refuges and national parks — initially directed national parks to stay open but with little staffing, leading to piles of uncollected garbage and human waste. The National Park Service over the weekend said some parks could use visitor fees to staff during the shutdown.
The Interior Department’s shutdown plan also says a small majority of agency staffers in charge of permitting and overseeing oil and gas development in federal waters will be kept at work no matter how long the shutdown lasts, “as they are essential for life and safety.”
The Trump administration has emphasized public use on public lands in general, especially by hunters and oil and gas developers. This has angered environmental groups, which say wildlife and habitat are at risk.
On Wednesday, the National Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, the Trust for Public Lands and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Retirees Association urged the Trump administration to keep national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands closed during the shutdown.
“It is simply impossible to steward these shared American treasures properly, leaving thousands of lands and waters accessible to the public with no staff on site, even for an emergency,” the groups wrote in a letter.
According to the Fish and Wildlife email, refuges being restaffed include Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains, where an annual winter elk hunt is scheduled for next week.