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Wildlife Refuge SOS

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CONFESSION time. Twenty some years ago, a young naval aviator who looks a lot like me (minus the beard) gleefully skittered around the Nevada desert at high speed and low altitude, scattering wildlife and practice bombs. Aside from his own hide - a mid-air collision with a goose at 500 knots can ``ruin your whole day,'' as the squadron jokesters put it - our young hotshot didn't think much about the birds, goats, tortoises, or wild horses who made their home there. Like the backpackers and ranchers and other groundlings, they were just spectators along thrill-a-minute training routes accurately called ``sandblowers.''

The problem with United States Navy operations at Fallon, Nev., is that they happen over, around, and often through federal wildlife refuges, including crucial rendezvous points for migratory waterfowl along the Pacific flyway. And the bigger problem is that the situation is not unique.

A recent investigation for the New York Zoological Society found that most of the nation's 456 wildlife refuges are in a sorry state, ``polluted by poisons of all sorts, deprived of water, and populated not only by animals but by miners, loggers, boaters, oil prospectors, farmers, ranchers, beekeepers, hunters, field-dog judges, fur trappers, jeep jockeys, even the military.''

``Short of testing hydrogen bombs,'' concluded John Mitchell, the report's author, ``there is almost nothing you can't do in a national wildlife refuge.'' Until recently, that included fox hunters riding to hounds.

Sadder still, this is no great revelation. The General Accounting Office (Congress's investigative arm) two years ago surveyed the National Wildlife Refuge System and reported at least one harmful activity occurring on 59 percent of the refuges. As a result of the GAO report, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (which oversees the refuge system) did its own audit and found illegal or questionable activities on 63 percent of them. It took a Freedom of Information Act request by the Wilderness Society to mak e that public.

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