The nation's 521 wildlife refuges suffer from poor leadership, inadequate staffing and low funding, according to a recent survey of refuge managers.

More than 90 percent of the 230 refuge managers surveyed said they want a new leadership structure or else the refuges should be removed from the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service. They also want Congress to hold hearings on refuges' future.

"I would characterize the entire system as being in a fairly serious state of disrepair," said Gene Hocutt, a retired refuge manager who spent 29 years in the National Wildlife Refuge System.

He said buildings are in poor condition, dikes are not being maintained and staff cannot keep up with such basic functions as planting grass and nesting cover for birds.

Dan Ashe, the Fish and Wildlife Service official who oversees the refuge system, said he was disappointed in the survey results. "The refuge system right now is going through one of the best periods of time the refuge system has even seen," he said.

Ashe said the operations and maintenance budget for refuges has grown from $161 million in 1995 to more than $280 million this year.

Refuges are located in all states and cover 93 million acres, making the system the third-largest land agency behind the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.

About 34 million Americans visit refuges each year to watch wildlife, hunt, fish and go on hikes.

"Refuges are commonly referred to as the black-sheep federal land system," said Evan Hirsche of the National Audubon Society.

Nearly nine of 10 refuge managers who responded to a survey by a public employee group said refuges fail to compete for staff and funds with other programs under the Fish and Wildlife Service.

About 60 percent of the managers endorsed a 1997 proposal by more than 100 colleagues calling for a refuge "chief" in the Fish and Wildlife Service at the deputy director level. Ashe is an assistant director.

Another 34 percent endorsed an Audubon Society proposal to create a separate Interior agency for refuges.

The director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Jamie Rappaport Clark, has recommended a minor reorganization that would allow Ashe to focus more on refuges by dropping his responsibility for overseeing migratory bird conservation programs. In the survey, only 1 percent of refuge managers endorsed Clark's idea.

"Refuge managers across the country believe they have not had a great deal of voice and direction in where the refuge system may be going," said Hocutt, who works on refuge issues for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

The Washington-based group of 10,000 state and federal environmental agency employees mailed the survey to all refuge managers a month ago. About 61 percent of the 380 managers responded.