ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It was late 2007, and the Department of Homeland Security's effort to block passage of drug smugglers and illegal immigrants into the United States from Mexico by building several hundred miles of new reinforced fencing along the border was in full tilt.
But when the project reached Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, comprising about 118,000 acres of southern Arizona, Homeland Security hit a snag.
Refuge manager Mitch Ellis informed DHS officials that he could not approve the fence project, planned for about a 1-mile stretch along the refuge's southern perimeter, because it would bisect habitat for the endangered jaguar and other species in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Frustrated with Ellis's decision, which required approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service's Region 2 headquarters in Albuquerque, DHS took its case to Southwest Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle.
Tuggle, who was appointed to the Southwest post just before Congress mandated construction of the fence, came up with a compromise: FWS would give Homeland Security the refuge land it needed for the fence, but in return FWS would receive lands of comparable ecological value elsewhere in the area, of the service's choosing (Land Letter, Nov. 29, 2007).
The decision, which allowed DHS to avoid exercising a controversial waiver authority granted to it by Congress to bypass federal environmental laws to expedite construction of the border fence, was unpopular not only with environmental groups and some members of the public, but also with the refuge staff.
But the 56-year-old Tuggle, who has one of the toughest jobs in the agency, is not one to wilt in the face of a challenge.
That quality, he says, has served him well in his four and a half years as the commander of the a region that has proven to be a hotbed of politically thorny issues, he says.
'I learn where you're coming from'
On any given day, Tuggle, whose region stretches from Oklahoma to Arizona, could be contending with efforts to recover Mexican wolves, the development of oil and gas resources in prairie chicken habitat, illegal drug smuggling through refuge lands, or how to ensure the survival of endangered animals and plants along the border fence that is designed to be impenetrable to smugglers and illegal immigrants.
In fact, upon arriving in the Southwest after a stint as acting special assistant to the director in Washington, D.C., Tuggle set his sights on fixing the beleaguered Mexican wolf program, determined to bring the tiny population back from the brink amid a backdrop of vehement local opposition (Land Letter, May 13).
And he has proven himself unafraid to take a strong stand. Discussing the spate of recent illegal shootings of Mexican wolves, whose population dropped to 42 animals last year, Tuggle makes no bones about his view of the perpetrators.
"People who are shooting wolves are criminals," he said flatly, sitting at a table near the window of his expansive corner office in downtown Albuquerque. "I will do whatever it takes to handle that illegal activity."
Amid the books, native pottery and stuffed animals filling his large office bookcase is a pair of buttons: One, from Defenders of Wildlife, depicts a Mexican wolf with the words "Wanted Alive" printed underneath; the other depicts the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association logo. In Tuggle's view, considering both perspectives is a critical part of doing his job.
"I'm a very good listener because that's the only way I learn where you're coming from," he said. "That's how you sustain a coalition."
Yet Tuggle still faces criticism from local officials and residents in the Mexican wolf recovery area, which straddles the New Mexico-Arizona border, that he does not listen well enough.
For instance, his office recently established an "interdiction fund" to pay ranchers for livestock lost to wolves and financially support other measures aimed at reducing wolf-livestock conflicts, such as hiring range riders to deter wolves. But some local officials have complained that the stakeholder group that will decide how the money is spent will be weighted in favor of conservationists (Land Letter, March 25).
But while people on both sides of the issue may disagree with Tuggle, they always know where he stands, said Eva Sargent, southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife. "He's very sort of straight-talking, I think not only with us but with the ranchers and all the stakeholders," she said. "Even if you don't agree with what he says, ... you pretty much understand where he's coming from."
At times, FWS, as the agency responsible for upholding one of the most embattled environmental laws -- the Endangered Species Act -- also clashes with other federal agencies over projects that could harm protected wildlife and plants. The challenge is most evident in the Southwest, where border security has become a major policy issue, leading to the construction of hundreds of miles of new fence, including across ecologically important public lands.
In Texas and Arizona, where a string of wildlife refuges harbor some of the last vestiges of habitat for the ocelot, jaguar and other threatened and endangered species, Tuggle and his refuge managers have undertaken sensitive negotiations with Homeland Security officials to try to mitigate the damage from the fence.
"I think Dr. Tuggle has done a fair job," said Ellis, the former manager of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, who now oversees the Southwest Arizona National Wildlife Refuge Complex, including the Kofa, Imperial and Cibola refuges. "I think it's very difficult trying to reconcile our agency's mission with the mission of the DHS. It's hard to have win-win situations."
That said, Ellis acknowledges that he and his supervisor do not always see eye to eye, as evidenced by their difference of opinion over the border fence project at Buenos Aires NWR.
"I would have liked to have seen FWS take a firmer stand and say with that particular pedestrian barrier, giving them a permit was not consistent with our laws," Ellis said. "The public needs to see we're at odds here."
Tuggle, who has a doctorate in zoology, said that while the science on a resource issue is usually clear, it is dealing with the divergent views among various interests that is challenging.
"Natural resource management is not difficult; people management is difficult," he said.
Ruffled agency feathers
That can extend to his own workforce as well. While Tuggle describes his management style as "open and inclusive," he has drawn criticism for failing to respect the expertise of his employees in the field.
"There's almost a kind of parental attitude toward the project leaders in the field," said one senior FWS field manager, who asked not to be named. "A very scolding tone at times. We've got some very experienced project leaders doing good work. But the impression they've gotten is, 'You guys in the field don't know what you're doing.' There's no trust."
Better communication from Region 2 headquarters would go a long way in resolving the problem, the field manager added.
Tuggle admitted that his decisions are not always popular with FWS employees. But, he added, field managers sometimes fail to understand other factors that must be taken into account in species decisions.
"That's a fair criticism," he said of the complaint that he sometimes contradicts his field staff. "There are a lot of times that recommendations come in from the field which don't comport with the reality of the decisions we have to make. I think I try to communicate about the decision, but they don't always like the decision. But I always respect their expertise."
Tuggle recalled a project proposed for Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona a few years ago. When an electric utility applied for a permit to run a power line through the refuge, along the route of an existing line, Tuggle approved the project, even though refuge officials opposed it.
"There were a lot of people who were very upset I made that decision," Tuggle said. "But I stand by it. That was one of the more controversial ones, but I think we negotiated it in a fair way."
Tuggle acknowledged that he can be tough at times, but said he sees himself as fair. "I'm not really a bullying type," he said. "I'd much rather get flies with sugar, not salt."
While Tuggle has drawn internal flak for decisions that contradict the recommendations of his staff, he also has a reputation for defending his employees when they are in the political hot seat.
Mike Hawkes, who retired as manager of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge last May, said that when his staff drew fire for issuing littering citations to a humanitarian group that placed water jugs in the desert for illegal border crossers, Tuggle encouraged the staff to continue their enforcement efforts and "let the public go ahead and see us doing our jobs."
"He does seem to back up his field folks," Hawkes said. "He stuck his neck out and took the heat occasionally. If we decided to do something, he wouldn't back out of it for political reasons later on. He provided back-up."
Ellis agreed. "When issues are important and they need to be championed, he's stepped up, and he's taken some difficult issues forward," he said, citing a decision Tuggle made to cull mountain lions on Kofa National Wildlife Refuge to help conserve bighorn sheep (Land Letter, May 27). "When we need support at the regional level, he will take them on, and he's a good spokesperson for those issues."
Diversifying the ranks
When he is not negotiating the rough political terrain of endangered species and refuge management, Tuggle, who is African-American, is helping lead the charge to bring greater diversity to FWS and also to raise the profile of wildlife conservation within minority communities.
"I think there's a pool of people we haven't tapped that don't look like the rest of us that we need to bring in," he said. "We need to continue to help the new generation understand the gift that's been given to us so that they will inherit that stewardship sensibility."
FWS is doing more outreach to college students, encouraging them to apply for internships to explore conservation work, he said. The agency also visits minority communities to try to generate more interest in wildlife conservation and natural resource careers, he added.
Tuggle, who is known to hand out copies of Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods," about the modern disconnect between children and nature, also strongly supports providing opportunities for city kids to get outside. Recalling that he developed his own love for the natural world during summer visits to his grandmother's house in Georgia, Tuggle said that exposure to flora and fauna is key in putting more children on the path to conservation and wildlife careers.
In fact, the very future of conservation in the United States may depend on it, he said.
"If you look at conservation in the world, the United States is the leader," he said. "If the U.S. has the best conservation ethic in the world, it's reflective of the people. And if the demographics of those people is changing ... there might be people who don't think endangered species are important, they might not think habitat is important. We need to get to those people right away, and help them understand that that's part of what makes this country great."
The country's public lands are part of its national heritage, and everyone has a stake in natural resource management, he added.
"It really is a patriotic issue," he said. "Because this country has been founded on the greatness of the resources of this country."
Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.