Some ‘Ding’ Darling wildlife refuge employees return amid shutdown

The partial government shutdown has left a popular Lee County wildlife refuge understaffed for the past 20 days creating the potential to put wildlife at risk. Just hours from now a creative solution will bring at least a few employees back.

Education and welcome staff will return to J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island Friday morning.

“I knew the Department of Interior had officially closed all the wildlife refuges,” said Kathy Lavey, visiting from Boston. “When I passed the sign, I figured I’d just drive by and see, and I saw the “Yes, we’re open sign.” I was happy to see that.”

However, other employees, which include scientists in charge of monitoring plants and animals, are still home.

Visitors have continued to walk the park, which remains open. The visitors center and the science labs have been closed closed.

Nine employees have been home nearly three weeks due to the shutdown.

“I think all sides need to get their heads out of their butts and make something happening,” Lavey said.

A compromise has not been reached in Washington D.C., but there is temporary relief for the wildlife refuge.

“They found a way to bring these employees from visitors services, and it’s 38 refuges out of 567 nationwide,” said Executive Director Birgie Miller of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society-Friends of the Refuge.

The four returning staff members will be paid from entry fees per current terms set by DOI.

“It’s just the most visited refuges in the country,” Miller said. “And “Ding” Darling happens to be one of the most visited refuges in the country with a little over a million visitors.”

But there are tasks left unfinished, since the scientist are still left without pay during the shutdown.

“The biologists aren’t back,” Miller said. “We can’t do surveys and do that work to protect wildlife, which is one of their main missions.”

“Ding” Darling made about $5,000 in entry fees Thursday. That’s at $5 per vehicle. The DOI allowance of certain employees to return is a short-term solution. The plan is only meant to last 30 days, but it’s enough to get the welcome center back open at 7 a.m. this Friday morning.

“There could be stuff going on in the water — in the food chain in the ecology — the whole balance of the place that they’d otherwise be monitoring,” Miller said. “And not to mention they and their families are without paychecks.”

Reporter:John-Carlos Estrada
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