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Cutbacks in wildlife officers raising concerns

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Sue Myers doesn’t work for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, but she was devastated to hear about looming staff cuts within the agency.

“It’s just breaking my heart that they have them cut back to the level they were at 10 years ago,” said Myers, who co-chairs the natural resources committee for Georgetown County’s League of Women Voters. “They’re already spread so thin it isn’t funny and now they’re being cut again. This is an agency that’s vital, especially for us in this area.”

Myers and others who want to preserve wildlife and the natural beauty of Georgetown County are worried about the effects of fewer natural resource officers being available to enforce laws.

After years of contending with a shrinking budget, the agency’s situation has become critical. Employees were told last month that the agency could no longer make payroll and were warned of looming staff cuts and 10-day furloughs in the coming fiscal year. The agency expects to have to cut at least 50 of its 689 employees.

“We’re already down 75 wildlife officers statewide,” said Mike Willis, a spokesman for the agency. “That leaves some counties with only one officer.” At least one county has no resident officer.

The agency’s budget has decreased from $31 million in 2001 to $17 million this year, according to John Frampton, the agency’s director.

“Every state agency is getting cut and we’re looking at another 15 percent cut this year,” said S.C. Rep. Vida Miller. “It’s a situation we’re all distressed about, but the revenue is just not coming in.”

No one contacted at the agency was able to comment on its staffing situation in Georgetown County or how the area will be affected by the latest round of cuts.

Myers said she expects the effects will be grim.

“DNR has been cut to the quick. You’ve got people doing the work three or four people should be doing and there’s no way they will be able to successfully sustain that and do the job they’re supposed to be doing,” Myers said.

And there are a lot of people who will take advantage of the situation, ignoring rules and regulations, because they believe they can get away with it, she predicts.

Tom Swatzel, a member of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, agrees.

“Fishermen, if they don’t see a law enforcement presence on the water, often will take a view that complying with fishery law doesn’t matter,” he said. “It takes a law enforcement presence, even if it’s dockside, to keep people honest.”

The state needs to make an investment in natural resources and make sure fisheries are properly managed, he said.

“One of the main attractions for coastal South Carolina is fishing. It’s obviously in [the state’s] best interest to make sure those fisheries stay healthy and sustainable,” Swatzel said.

People should also be worried about maintenance of public lands, said Rick Baumann, chairman of the Grand Strand chapter of Ducks Unlimited. That and the management of wildlife on those lands fall into disrepair if the agency is underfunded, he said.

That’s one of the things Ducks Unlimited has helped the agency with over the years. The group raised about $350,000 for conservation last year. Those funds help with agency programs, including game management, Baumann said.

Amy Armstrong, an attorney at the S.C. Environmental Law Project, worries about the agency’s ability to continue providing advisory information to permitting agencies, such as the Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“DNR provides valuable monitoring research, and they’re very familiar with our waterways, creeks and natural resources,” she said.

Without that input, permitting agencies would be hampered in assessing the environmental impacts of permits under consideration. “DHEC are regulators, but they don’t have that expertise, that more biological, scientific knowledge,” Armstrong said.

It’s possible volunteers could step in to fill some of the gaps that will be left by cuts to the agency, said Christine Ellis, Waccamaw Riverkeeper. The trick is in finding the right people.

“It takes a certain amount of expertise to know what to look for,” she said, “but we do have a lot of retirees here, a lot of local scientists” who have the right background, but need local knowledge and direction on how they can use their expertise.

Baumann said Ducks Unlimited will step up its financial support. He proposed to the group’s state chairman that it have “a major initiative of some type to help DNR. We just have to figure out the logistics of it.”

He said individuals can assist the agency, too.

“People who are concerned about our natural resources, whether they hunt or not, would do very well to buy hunting and fishing licenses,” he said.

As the state becomes more urbanized, fewer residents are hunters and fishermen. That factors in when legislators apportion funding, he said.

Donations can also be made to Ducks Unlimited. Visit ducks.org for information.

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