Biden Admin. Might Consider Closing Some Public Lands to Hunting and Fishing

Biden Admin. Might Consider Closing Some Public Lands to Hunting and Fishing

In November 2021, the animal-rights activist group Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over a 2020 decision by the Trump Administration to expand hunting and fishing opportunities within the National Wildlife Refuge System. News recently broke that the Biden Administration is engaged in private talks to settle that lawsuit, which could potentially lead to the closure of nearly 100 refuges and potentially million acres of public lands to hunting and fishing, according to the Sportsmen’s Alliance. Other organizations, however, believe that these negotiations are purely procedural and the USFWS remains dedicated to sportsmen and women.

If in fact outdoors opportunities are on the table, some hunters and anglers nationwide say they feel betrayed by the government that very recently bragged about increasing sporting opportunities on national wildlife refuges.

“A few short months ago, the Biden Administration was touting the largest expansion of hunting and fishing in history on these lands and now they’re negotiating with animal-rights activists over hunting opportunities, while excluding sportsmen from having a seat at the table,” Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation President and CEO Evan Heusinkveld said. “It’s no surprise that animal-rights and anti-hunting groups want to stop hunting, but sportsmen shouldn’t tolerate being shut out as the Biden Administration negotiates away hunting opportunities on public lands."

The Biden Administration’s expansion of hunting and fishing on 90 refuges covering 2.1 million acres in August 2021 is not being contested. Rather, the environmental extremist group is going after a similar action the Trump Administration enacted in August 2020 that opened 2.3 million acres on 138 refuges and nine fish hatcheries to hunting and fishing. This lawsuit specifically targets eight of those refuges in Montana, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Kansas, Indiana, and South Dakota, but could affect many more if the whole executive order from the Trump Administration is overturned.

Sporting opportunities on national wildlife refuges and national fish hatcheries have steadily increased under every president since the 1997 passage of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, signed into law by President Clinton, which mandated that the USFWS expand compatible recreational opportunities within the 95-million-acre refuge system. These opportunities can be flexibly regulated by individual refuges to, say, put a hold on duck hunting in an area where endangered whooping cranes are present.

The Sportsman’s Alliance say they were shocked to discover that the Biden Administration and the CBD requested a delay in court proceedings while they discuss conditions of a settlement. The alliance and others were preparing to intervene in the suit but were provided no warning that it might be settled out of court and have no visibility into the discussions occurring now between the plaintiff and defendants. Hunters expect to lose opportunities on public lands if a settlement is reached, though other outcomes are possible. The named parties in the suit are USFWS Acting Director Martha Williams and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, both of whom have ties to the hunting community. The court-ordered stay in proceedings expires on April 8 so more information will be available then.

The 56-page lawsuit from the CBD, filed in the U.S. District Court of Montana, hinges on the effects lead ammunition and fishing tackle could have on endangered species within these specific refuges, claiming use of that metal violates the Endangered Species Act. In 2016, the USFWS began the process of phasing out all uses of lead in wildlife refuges by 2023, but that order was rescinded shortly after in 2017 by then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. Lead fishing tackle is already banned in many refuges, and lead shot for waterfowl hunting has been illegal nationwide since 1991.

In a jubilant letter to members when they filed this suit, CBD Executive Director Kieran Suckling made a series of false and misleading statements to rally environmentalists to their cause.

“America's national wildlife refuges have been turned into trophy hunter playgrounds,” Suckling began. “The massive expansion of hunting across more than 2 million acres of national wildlife refuges is unprecedented—and violates the Endangered Species Act. Foxes, black bears and countless other species will be targeted, with some refuges providing no limits on how much wildlife can be gunned down. Kicking the doors open to more hunting on refuges will have a ripple effect on whole ecosystems. In places like Swan River National Wildlife Refuge in Montana, hunters could mistake endangered grizzlies for black bears. Ocelots living on Texas's Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge could be poisoned by lead-tainted bullets. We're not going to stand for increased killing of wildlife on even more national refuges.”

Ignoring the fact that Montana hunters have to take a bear identification course and could face huge fines and even jail for accidentally shooting a grizzly, or that waterfowlers in Laguna Atascosa have been limited to non-toxic shot for three decades, the CBD seems to generally allege that hunting and fishing are incompatible with refuge management due to increased traffic and noise. This also ignores the fact that the National Wildlife Refuge System was founded in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most famous hunters in history. Sales of Federal Duck Stamps, mostly to hunters, have been used to purchase and protect millions of acres of these refuges, and excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment continue to foot the bill for a large portion of refuge management.

The CBD is seeking to recover attorney’s fees, costs, and expenses associated with litigation Under the Equal Access to Justice Act, abuses of which MeatEater has covered before. MeatEater founder Steven Rinella said these are all tactics we’ve seen in the past, but hunters need to push back as hard as ever against them.

“Again and again, we see animal rights organizations such as Center for Biological Diversity use disinformation and dishonesty as part of their propaganda campaigns,” Steve said. “Their alleged concerns about lead ammunition and increased traffic on wildlife refuges that were opened up to hunting and fishing by the Trump Administration are both insincere and ridiculous. What they're really after is an end to regulated hunting in all its forms, and they'll take that battle anywhere they can win. I hope that the Biden White House doesn't become such a place.”

Brian Lynn is the vice president of communications at the Sportsmen’s Alliance. He said it’s impossible to know what will come of the settlement negotiations since they’re occurring behind closed doors between the plaintiff and defendants. The parties might not settle and go to trial instead. They might settle on restoring the lead ammo and fishing weight phase-out. They might alter some of the hunting and fishing management plans on these specific refuges to address endangered species concerns. They might also end up closing some of these refuges to hunting and fishing, though that could be politically perilous prior to midterm elections.

“Our only recourse is to let our elected officials at the federal level, U.S. Senators and Representatives, know about this and that you don't like it,” Lynn told MeatEater. “I hope some of that political pressure moves on up the chain.”

Other sources suggest that the settlement talks are standard procedure and doubt the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would commit such an affront to hunters and anglers. Still, conservation groups encourage those concerned about these issues to contact their representatives in Congress and ask for their support in maintaining our traditions.

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