Hunt-Fish Groups Speak Out Against Major Refuge Management Change

Hunt-Fish Groups Speak Out Against Major Refuge Management Change

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is considering a rule change that would restrict predator hunting and agriculture operations, among other management practices, on wildlife refuges across the country. The proposed rule is a clarification and update to the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act of 1997, which set the framework for the National Wildlife Refuge System, tasking the Secretary of Interior with ensuring “that the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health (BIDEH) of the system are maintained for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” The new rules are a clarification on the broad, vague meaning of BIDEH—one that hunter and angler advocacy groups are calling a gross overstep.

Since the proposal was published in February (with a public comment period extended for 90 days—per the request of conservation advocacy groups), it’s received 54,000 comments, most concurring that the rules fly in the face of the wildlife refuge network’s original mission that “each refuge shall be managed to fulfill the mission of the system, as well as the specific purposes for which that refuge was established.” In many cases, that means waterfowl hunting, which has been greatly enhanced by grain fields and ag operations on refuges.

The new rules, however, seek to change those practices by providing a top-down framework restricting what can be used as management tools. The USFWS justifies the proposal by arguing that it addresses threats from climate change and biodiversity loss by deferring to natural ecosystem processes. “The proposed regulations,” the USFW writes, “would prioritize deference to natural processes and support ecological connectivity as a means of achieving refuge habitat objectives and landscape planning goals.”

That includes prohibiting the use of predator control, agricultural practices, mosquito control, and the use of GMO crops & organisms unless deemed essential to fulfilling refuge purposes. In short, the regulations set a no-action baseline, against which management practices need to be assessed and approved individually. Should the rules be approved and codified, they would represent a major paradigm change in the way refuges are managed.

Hunter and angler groups are concerned the regulations would alienate sportsmen, who are currently some of the top users and funders of the wildlife refuge system through federal license purchases, like waterfowl stamps. The groups are also upset that they weren’t consulted before the new rules were drafted. In a letter—submitted as a public comment and signed by 32 conservation groups, including Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, and Ducks Unlimited—the groups argue that the new regulations “could erode public support for the refuge system by disenfranchising those who have long fought for the establishment of refuges and sought to see the NWRS adequately funded.”

Specifically, hunters have long enjoyed the benefits of predator control and agriculture on refuges, both resulting in greater game and bird density. Some refuges even plant cover crops or cereal grain to provide forage for migrating waterfowl, bringing the birds to the refuges and surrounding areas in huge numbers.

Take the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge for example—just to name one of many. Several dispersed chunks of the refuge are leased for agriculture, creating a huge source of food for migrating birds. According to the refuge, before agricultural operations, sandhill cranes would pass straight through the valley, but with grain fields the refuge is now known to harbor thousands of the birds on their spring and fall migrations. Should the habitat quality be decreased with the new “natural processes” paradigm, the waterfowl populations on the Columbia Refuge, along with dozens of others, could be severely impacted. For the USFWS, that would likely mean a decrease in license sales, and willingness of sportsmen to donate to refuge partner nonprofits.

In addition to the on-the-ground changes the regulations would create, Montana senator Steve Daines also argues that a more top-down management style would distance refuges from the local communities that use them the most. In a public comment, he said: “The proposed BIDEH changes make it more difficult for refuge managers to work with farmers and ranchers to meet maintenance objectives. Grazing and farming on national wildlife refuges across the United States has created unique partnerships that improve these lands for wildlife while also benefiting the surrounding rural economies.” In short, the rules appear to be a lose-lose for most users.

Going forward, the public comment period is currently closed, and the USFWS will take note of comments when writing a final rule—likely to be released this summer. Stay tuned, as the rules could greatly change the function and purpose of refuges across the country.

Sign In or Create a Free Account

Access the newest seasons of MeatEater, save content, and join in discussions with the Crew and others in the MeatEater community.
Save this article