Feds Move to Open 1.4 Million Acres of Public Land to Hunting, Fishing


The 26,400 acres of Wyoming’s Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, where these mule deer are poking around, along with dozens of other federal refuges and hatcheries from coast to coast, will see more opportunities for sportsmen under a new plan announced this week. (Photo: Tom Koerner/USFWS)

U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt this week announced a proposal to expand hunting and fishing at nearly 90 wildlife refuges and hatcheries nationwide.

The proposed rule would include big changes such opening Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to hunting and fishing for the first time and opening of Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming to deer and elk hunting for the first time. Other facilities would see smaller expansions with the net result of some 1.4 million new acres of public land opened for access to sportsmen.

“Hunting and fishing are more than just traditional pastimes as they are also vital to the conservation of our lands and waters, our outdoor recreation economy, and our American way of life,” said Bernhardt, an outdoorsman endorsed by pro-gun and pro-hunting groups during his confirmation process this year. “These refuges and hatcheries provide incredible opportunities for sportsmen and women and their families across the country to pass on a fishing and hunting heritage to future generations and connect with wildlife.”

Besides the Green Bay and Seedskadee refuges, the proposal would also formally open lands on 15 hatcheries of the National Fish Hatchery System to sport fishing while two of the hatcheries, Leadville NFH in Colorado and Iron River NFH in Wisconsin, would also allow migratory game bird, upland game and big game hunting for the first time. Additionally, some 67 NWRs would see their current hunting and sport fishing opportunities expanded. In all, an estimated 14,508 new days of hunting on public land will be added nationwide by the plan.

The change would also standardize and clarify the language of existing rules across a number of refuges. This means removing approximately 2,100 local regulations and simplify over 2,900 refuge-specific regulations “to reduce the regulatory burden on the public.” Many of the current regs on the books are long obsolete, points out USFWS, such as a mandate for medical access waiver permits on a refuge in Virginia although local officials have not issued any such waivers for more than 30 years, and have no plans to issue any in the future.

According to USFWS surveys and data, some 101 million Americans, or 40 percent of the United States’ population, pursued wildlife-related recreation to the tune of some $156 billion in 2016. These included an estimated 32 million target shooters and 11.5 million hunters.

Founded in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, there are some 560 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System – a network of lands set aside and managed by USFWS specifically as habitat for wildlife. This week’s proposal would up the number of units open for hunting in the system from 377 to 382.

USFWS will accept public comments on the proposed rule for 30 days, beginning with publication in the Federal Register in coming days.

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