Washington – Today Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA), along with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) announced the introduction of the Refuge System Protection Act. This bipartisan and bicameral bill gives the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) the authority to collect civil damages to repair damaged property and resources on wildlife refuges.
“Currently when our treasured wildlife refuges are damaged, USFWS has to use taxpayer money to cover the cost of repairs and restoration. This is unacceptable – if someone intentionally damage our important protected habitats, it should be that person’s responsibility to pay for it,” said Thompson. “That’s why I introduced the Refuge System Protection Act, a bipartisan bill in both the House and the Senate that allows Fish and Wildlife to seek damages and more quickly restore these refuges without making taxpayers foot the bill. Other agencies such as the National Park Service already have this authority and it’s a commonsense solution to this problem.”
“The First District of Virginia is home to unique and special ecosystems. As a former state health official who conducted field research in the Chesapeake Bay, I am aware of the ecological challenges facing Virginia waters, wetlands, and refuges and I know the importance of taking care of our environment for future generations. Providing for the protection and security of these resources is absolutely vital.” said Wittman. “This legislation will help ensure that our nation’s refuges are protected for years to come.”
To repair damage to wildlife refuges caused by offenses such as burglary, theft or arson, the USFWS must use tax-payer funded allocations, at the expense of other refuge programs. Currently, only criminal fines that are assessed can be collected, and they are returned to the Treasury rather than directed to repairing damages. There were at least 1,787 offenses of vandalism and 127 acts of arson with damage costs totaling more than $395,000 in damage to refuges between 2014 and 2016. The Refuge System Protection Act would provide USFWS the authority to collect civil damages from responsible parties for intentional injuries to all living and non-living resources within refuge lands and waters. These fines would be directed to the USFWS Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Fund and used to address those specific damages.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages millions of acres of National Wildlife Refuge lands and dozens of National Fish Hatcheries for a broad range of activities - such as hunting, fishing, and wildlife dependent activities. It should have the authority to recoup damages from accidental, negligent and willfully destructive behavior,” said Senator Cardin. “The recent shutdown certainly exacerbated the need for such authority, but, unfortunately, our federal refuges nationwide encounter various injuries and on fairly regular basis.”
“We must be good stewards of our environment, and that includes supporting the mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect national wildlife refuges, endangered species, and management of fish and wildlife for Americans,” said Senator Gardner. “Currently, federal taxpayers on are the hook for unlawful destruction of Service lands and waters, and this legislation will instead rightly place that burden on bad actors. I’m proud to lead this bipartisan effort in support of this conservation agency that protects our wildlife habitat.”
The Refuge System Protection Act would put wildlife refuges, which host more than 48.5 million visitors and support more than $2.4 billion in local economies, on par with other public lands that are afforded this protection.