Skeleton crew runs refuge for shutdown

By Steve Estes

The largest federal agency on Big Pine Key is down to a staff of three for as long as the US government shut down continues.

According to National Key Deer Refuge Manager Nancy Finley, the government shutdown has left the refuge with just one full-time law enforcement agent, one law enforcement agent that splits time between here and the other three refuge complexes in the Keys, and herself as the only working staff.

“We got a memo from our superiors that detailed exempt personnel from the shut down, and I’m it along with two law enforcement personnel,” said Finley.

The most notable closures locally are the refuge visitor center in the Big Pine Shopping Center and the refuge headquarters building at the end of Watson Road.

Finley said that technically the Blue Hole observation area on Key Deer Blvd. And the refuge’s nature trails are also closed.

“But we have no way to enforce those closures since you can get in from anywhere and some folks live next door to and must cross refuge lands to get in and out,” she said.

The federal government went into shutdown mode Monday at midnight, although federal workers here could work part of the morning Tuesday to effect the shutdown procedures.

“Any events we may have had planned, or meetings and events we were supposed to take part in have been canceled until the shutdown is resolved,” said Finley. “At least we got through the Birding Festival before this happened.”

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners was anticipating a presentation from refuge personnel for the October BOCC meeting Oct. 16, but if the shutdown continues to that date, there will be no personnel to make that presentation.

The county has been asking questions about the sharp increase in Key Deer kill numbers over the last four years despite stagnant growth in human development and little or no growth in traffic across the island. In 2012, a record number of Key Deer were killed by automobile collisions.

“That’s one of the things we’ll have to wait and see on,” said Finley.

She said the refuge had to get special permission from its superiors Tuesday to repair one of its employee houses after a roof was blown off.

“We don’t know whether a tornado touched down and then jumped back off or the house was hit by a targeted micro burst, but the metal roof was torn off and landed about 100 feet away in the mangroves sometime Monday night,” said Finley.

She said a temporary roof had to be installed, but she is uncertain of using funds to repair the damage right now because of the shutdown.

“We have been instructed to deal with anything that involves public safety, life safety or property safety, and other than that maintain essential functions,” said Finley.

One of those essential functions is responding to Key Deer road kill calls.

“Right now we’re passing the phone around between the three of us for those calls. We haven’t had any in the last two days, so maybe we’ll get lucky,” said Finley.

She said the refuge has sen a few minor cases of vandalism since the staff was furloughed, “but that’s not unusual. We seem to always get a little bit of that.”

She said that all firefighting personnel are currently in furlough status, making a wildfire response problematic.

“We’ve always had good response from the state Division of Forestry and Monroe County Fire Rescue, so they would be the primary responders in that situation. We would muster what help we have locally to aid them as we could, but it would take awhile for us,” said Finley.

Other than the visitor center and refuge offices, Finley says that vandalism concerns have prompted the remaining staff to forgo posting areas as closed due to the shutdown.

“As long as the shudown remains in effect we’ve been told to expect the situation to continue as it is, with further guidance to come,” she said.

Marine patrols for the National Marine Sanctuary haven’t been completely curtailed although most of the research being conducted by the Sanctuary has been put on hold until the shutdown is resolved.

Finely said federal workers received paychecks for the first of the month, and filed time sheets for the final week of September and this week, at least for a truncated week, “But we don’t know if there will be anybody working to cut those checks.”

National news services have said throughout Tuesday and Wednesday that Legislators are settling in for a long, drawn-out battle over the shutdown. No one has ventured a guess when the shutdown might end.

“When we get the signal to go back to work, we’ll catch up on maintenance projects and re-start our deer counts and herd management practices,” said Finley.


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