U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced Tuesday the expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities on more than 2.3 million acres at 138 of the nation's 568 national wildlife refuges and at nine national fish hatcheries, the largest expansion in history.
The announcement comes one day after the Trump administration announced it would open up 1.6 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas drilling. According to the Washington Post, the leases would take place at the refuge's coastal plains, "part of a nearly pristine wilderness that is home to migrating caribou and waterfowl as well as polar bears and foxes that live there year-round."
The Alaska refuge was not on the list for expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities in Tuesday's announcement.
Colorado has eight national wildlife refuges, including three urban refuges at Rocky Flats and Two Ponds in Jefferson County, and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Commerce City. However, the expansion in Colorado announced Tuesday is for rural wildlife refuges only:
- Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge: Open sport fishing for the first time.
- Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge (Moffat County): Open moose and pronghorn hunting on acres already open to other hunting.
- Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge: Expand existing elk hunting to new acres.
Colorado has two national fish hatcheries, in Leadville and Hotchkiss, but neither are on Tuesday's list for expansion.
“We continue to take significant actions to further conservation initiatives and support sportsmen and women who are America’s true conservationists," Bernhardt said in a statement Tuesday.
The final rule opens or expands 859 hunting and fishing opportunities (an opportunity is defined as one species on one field station in one state). This proposal would bring the Trump Administration’s total expansion to more than four million acres nationwide, the statement said.
“The Trump Administration and Secretary Bernhardt have made access to public lands for hunting and fishing and other outdoor recreation a priority beginning day one. Hunting and fishing are a part of our American history, and we continue to ensure we provide opportunities for these activities which epitomize our American heritage,” said Service Director Aurelia Skipwith. “Furthermore, we have maintained our commitment to promoting good government by reducing the regulatory burden by working with states to facilitate these outdoor activities.”
The final rule will publish in the Federal Register, docket number FWS-HQ-NWRS-2020-0013.
The Bernhardt statement added that America’s sportsmen and women generated nearly $1 billion in excise taxes last year, supporting critical state conservation programs. These funds are generated by excise tax collections on hunting, shooting and fishing equipment and boat fuel that is distributed to all 50 states and U.S. territories by the Service. These activities also generate about $156 billion in economic activity for their local communities, based on 2016 numbers.
The statement said the National Wildlife Refuge System, which annually draws about 59 million visits, includes 568 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts. There is a national wildlife refuge within an hour’s drive of most major metropolitan areas. National wildlife refuges provide vital habitat for thousands of species and access to world-class recreation, from fishing, hunting and paddling to nature watching, photography and environmental education.
The statement also included congratulatory comments from nine Republican U.S. senators and 11 members of the U.S. House, all Republicans. None of those comments came from any member of Colorado's congressional delegation.
“Today’s announcement exemplifies the optimism and excitement that our industry members share regarding the future of hunting participation across this country,” said Vice President and Chief Conservation Officer for the Archery Trade Association Dan Forster. “Improving access for outdoor enthusiasts is a critical component to ensuring a bright future for our industry and our hunting and fishing constituency. This unprecedented expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a monumental and refreshing achievement and we applaud Secretary Bernhardt and his team for their continued and strong leadership supporting hunters and anglers across the United States.”
“The American public needs outdoor recreation opportunities for their physical and mental well-being more than ever,” said Secretary of South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks and President of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Kelly Hepler. “By practicing responsible recreation, Americans can enjoy these new opportunities to get outside to enjoy the lands and waters, and fish and wildlife resources, of our great nation.”
Hunting and fishing organizations lined up to cheer the expansion, including Delta Waterfowl, the Mule Deer Foundation, the NRA's Hunters' Leadership Forum, National Shooting Sports Foundation and National Wild Turkey Federation.
Conservation groups that weighed in on the expansion included Ducks Unlimited. “Now, more than ever, Americans are desperate to get outside and enjoy all of the natural beauty our nation has to offer,” said Ducks Unlimited CEO Adam Putnam. “This historic expansion of access to our public lands will provide increased opportunities for hunters, anglers, hikers and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts – or simply those who seek an outlet from being cooped up indoors these last few months ... We look forward to its swift implementation and to getting America back to nature for the best social distancing there is and the cheapest therapy available: the outdoors.”
John Devney, senior vice president for Delta Waterfowl, said the rule, coupled with other efforts to increase access to wildlife refuges, will make "a significant difference to provide new hunting opportunities. We look forward to working with the Service to continue to focus on priority waterfowl refuges in the coming year to bring even more access to duck hunters across the country.”
The Mule Deer Foundation, which has championed conservation of mule deer, said the expansion will support "new opportunities for big game hunting within the National Wildlife Refuge System.”