The Interior Department is proposing to let hunters and anglers kill more migratory birds and other animals in wildlife refuges—an opportunity to “celebrate” victory over the coronavirus pandemic in the fall, Interior officials said Wednesday.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to open for expanded hunting and fishing 2.3 million acres of federal land within 97 national wildlife refuges and 9 fish hatcheries.
The move, which Interior says it the largest single expansion in FWS history, is part of a rulemaking updating hunting and sport fishing regulations for national wildlife refuges for the 2020-2021 hunting season.
“Once the Trump Administration’s effort to eliminate the threat of COVID-19 has been successful, there will be no better way to celebrate than to get out and enjoy increased access for hunting and fishing on our public lands,” Fish and Wildlife Service chief Aurelia Skipwith said in a news release, citing the disease the coronavirus causes.
Hunters now have “something significant to look forward to” when the hunting season begins in the fall, Bernhardt said in the statement.
“Expanded access at refuges and hatcheries gives recreationists immediate opportunities to practice safe, social distancing while enjoying the outdoors and long-term benefits to wildlife management,” Kyle Weaver, the CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a public lands hunting advocacy group, said in the statement.
As of Tuesday, 12,621 Americans had died of the disease, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Endangered Species Concerns
Under federal law, all national wildlife refuges outside of Alaska are closed to hunting—unless they’re opened by the secretary of Interior if he thinks hunting is compatible with their purpose. The rulemaking proposes to allow expanded hunting of migratory game birds, big game, and game fish in refuges and fish hatcheries, some of which are already open to hunting.
The announcement comes as hunting is declining nationwide, according to Fish and Wildlife Service data. The number of hunters nationwide fell 16% between 2011 and 2016, the service’s most recent data show.
“Some types of hunting and fishing are allowed on most of the 500+ wildlife refuges around the country so this proposal is not objectionable on its face,” Mark Squillace, a natural resources law professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said in an email.
But hunting of waterfowl and some bird species within national wildlife refuges could lead to accidental killing of endangered birds, he said.
Peter Nelson, director for federal lands for Defenders of Wildlife, also said he is concerned the Fish and Wildlife Service will be unable to monitor increased hunting in refuges, threatening the illegal killing of protected species. More hunters in refuges could also disturb habitat for endangered species, he said.
Ties to Trump Jr.
Interior’s announcement included an endorsement from several hunting groups, including trophy-hunting advocacy group Safari Club International, which is tied to Donald Trump Jr., President Donald Trump’s son. The group auctioned off a seven-day Alaska “dream hunt” on federal land with Donald Trump Jr. in February.
When asked about the connection between Safari Club International and Interior’s rulemaking, Interior spokesman Connor Swanson said many groups are excited about expanded hunting in refuges.
“Any questions about why they are excited about increased hunting and fishing opportunities for their members should be directed to them,” he said.
The Safari Club International didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Among the national wildlife refuges that will allow expanded hunting are:
- New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, known for its sandhill cranes and crane festival. Interior is proposing to allow dove, goose, coot and other bird hunting in the refuge.
- Florida’s Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge, which will be newly opened to migratory bird and big game hunting.
The proposal is open for public comment until early June.