LAS VEGAS (FOX5) -- For months a single worker has managed all visitors and 1.6 million acres of Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Southern Nevada.
The issue highlights a nationwide, decade-long problem of shrinking numbers of federal workers amid rising tourist visits and workloads, and questions from advocates if our nation’s federal lands are being properly monitored, cared for and adequately funded.
Desert National Wildlife Refuge is the largest refuge in the lower 48 states. The goal of the refuge system, with more than 560 refuges, is to maintain the land’s natural beauty and protect America’s native species for generations to come.
According to leaders at non-profit advocacy group Wildlife Refuge Association, the lack of staffing for the vast expanse of land is astounding; management and oversight of wildlife for a site that size would typically require a team of biologists and employees.
Amy Sprunger, the manager and the single employee for a number of months, said her daily workload amounts to the tasks of five to even eight employees—from office duties, paperwork, trail patrols, clearing debris and cleaning duties.
“Presently there's no other staff. I’m fresh out of warm bodies right now,” Sprunger said. “I can wake up in the middle of the night with my head buzzing with stuff that I know needs to be done."
With no maintenance worker on duty, a number of tasks such as road maintenance, cannot be completed, leading to the risk of trail and road closures.
A biologist has not been on staff to monitor wildlife or invasive species for months.
Managers said the visitor numbers in all refuges in Southern Nevada have doubled over the past ten years, but staffing has stayed mostly stagnant to handle the extra workload across millions of acres.
Employees said from climate change to development impact, the lack of additional funding has made it challenging to assess the health of beloved species such as the desert tortoise or bighorn sheep.
“There’s a lot going on because we don’t have the people to monitor it or survey it. With wildlife populations, without monitoring it, you don’t know what’s happening to those populations,” said Kevin Desroberts, who manages the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Desroberts said a team of biologists would be necessary to monitor the Southern Nevada refuges and properly protect native species.
Funding for the four Southern Nevada refuges had remained stagnant since 2016, with the exception of $320,000 more funding between 2018-2019 for an additional employee to handle visitors and maintenance costs.
According to the Wildlife Refuge Association, the federal budget for the entire refuge system is at 2010 levels, despite the additional visitors.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the total number of federal employees in the past decade dipped from 10,169 to 8,287 employees; the Wildlife Refuge Association said the actual number of staff for refuges dropped from 3,500 to 3,000 during that time frame.
The Wildlife Refuge Association said the Trump Administration as proposed an additional $22 million increase in funding, which will aid with workloads.