The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS or “the Service”) proposes to further expand the extent of hunting and sport fishing permitted on lands designated as National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) and National Fish Hatcheries (NFHs).  Through various first-time openings of federally administered lands to these activities, as well as adding more seasons, dates, and species to currently permitted hunting and fishing activities on such lands, the Service proposes to open or expand hunting and sport fishing on 2,300,501 acres within the National Wildlife Refuge and National Fish Hatchery System.  This would be additional to approximately 1.4 million acres within the NWR and NFH system that were opened up to new or expanded hunting and fishing activities only last September.

Comments on the proposal must be received by the FWS no later than 11:59 PM Eastern Time on June 8, 2020 in order to be considered.

Summary of the Proposed Amendments to FWS Regulations

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ( FWS or “the Service”) proposes to amend its regulations to: (1) open for hunting and sport fishing eight National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) in which those activities have never previously been allowed; (2) expand the hunting and sport fishing allowed at 89 other NWRs; (3) open nine units of the National Fish Hatchery System (NFHs) up to hunting or sport fishing; and (4) add “station-specific” regulations pertaining to migratory game bird hunting, upland game hunting, big game hunting, and sport fishing for the 2020-2021 season at these nine NFHs. The result would be to allow for the first time, or expand the permitted extent of, hunting and/or sport fishing on 2,300,501 acres of federally administered lands.  The proposed regulatory amendments would also open up to upland and big game hunting, as well as sport fishing (in accordance with State regulations) 41 North Dakota “limited-interest easement” NWRs ( NWRs controlled by private landowners, and therefore currently not fully open to the public unless authorized by the landowner). In addition the amendments would change various other existing regulations specific to particular NWR and NFH locations in order to reduce restrictions and requirements on visitors or users, increase access for hunters and anglers on Service lands and waters, and make regulatory language more “plain.”  Lastly, the new regulations would prohibit domestic sheep, goat, and camelid pack animals on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Basics:
  •     By statute, the Department of Interior has authority to open up Federal Wildlife Refuge and National Fish Hatchery areas to hunting and sports fishing.
  •     Allowing hunting and fishing in these areas for the first time — or expanding, renewing, or extending an existing use of a refuge or hatchery for those activities — requires the Secretary of the Interior (or her/his designee) to determine that the use is compatible with the purposes for which the refuge was established and the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
  •     The System was created for the purpose of conserving fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats. The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is “to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.”
  •     Nevertheless Congress has recognized that this conservation mission can be “facilitated by providing Americans opportunities to participate in compatible wildlife-dependent recreation, including fishing and hunting, on System lands and to better appreciate the value of and need for fish and wildlife conservation.”
  •     Under the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act and the Refuge Recreation Act, the FWS has authority to regulate NWRs and NFHs according to priorities that include (1) ensuring compatibility with refuge and hatchery purpose(s); (2) properly managing fish and wildlife resources; (3) protecting other values; (4) protecting visitors; and (5) providing opportunities for fish-and-wildlife-dependent recreation.
  •     Although it is clear that conservation of fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats is the first priority,  the law specifically recognizes hunting and fishing as legitimate recreational uses of NWR and NFH lands and waters (along with wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation).
  •     Accordingly, hunting and sport fishing have long been permitted to some degree on certain NWR and NFH lands.
  •     The current proposal — particularly in combination with regulatory amendments finalized less than a year ago, in September of 2019 — represents a dramatic increase in the hunting and fishing allowed in federal wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries.
  •     The new proposal would add eight more wildlife refuges and nine more National Fish Hatcheries to the list of NWRs and NFHs in which hunting and/or sport fishing is allowed; and it would expand (by species, dates, or season) the hunting and fishing activities permitted in 89 other NWRs.
  •     The proposed regulations would allow for the first time, or expand the permitted extent of, hunting and/or sport fishing on 2,300,501 acres of wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries.
  •     Combined with seven NWRs and fifteen NFHs first opened up to hunting and sport fishing last September, the new proposal would bring the total of number of NWRs where hunting is allowed to 399 and the number where fishing is permitted to 331.
  •     Combined with previous, similar deregulatory actions, the currently proposed FWS regulations would bring the total federally protected wildlife refuge and fish hatchery acreage the Trump Administration has opened up to new or expanded hunting and sport fishing to 4 million acres.
  •     The Department of the Interior and supporters of the proposal contend that expanded hunting and sports fishing in the nation’s wildlife refuges will support conservation goals, in addition to providing people with recreational opportunities that are part of “our American way of life,’ and contributing to the “outdoor recreation economy.”
  •     Opponents of increased hunting and sport fishing in National Wildlife Refuges and National Fish Hatcheries are concerned about the potential impact of the proposed new rules on the habitat and well-being of endangered species, as well as the possibility that FWS’ proposal reflects an overriding Trump Administration policy that favors hunting and accommodates trophy hunters, rather than responsible stewardship of national wildlife refuge lands.
The Agency’s Justification for Proposing the Regulatory Amendments:

The FWS asserts that substantially expanded hunting and fishing activity will be compatible with maintaining the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health of the Refuge System. The Service takes the position that expanded hunting and sport fishing in NWRs and NFHs is justifiable because people’s enjoyment of hunting and fishing is within the scope of legitimate recreational goals for the National Wildlife Refuge and Fish Hatchery System.  FWS has also argued that actively promoting hunting and sports fishing supports conservation, because participation in these activities leads to enhanced individual appreciation of the great outdoors and a correspondingly increased desire to help conserve the nation’s natural resources of plants and wildlife.  Another major rationale for FWS promoting increased hunting and fishing is that it contributes to an “outdoor recreation economy,”

Additional Information and Resources:

The FWS Notice of Proposed Rulemakng explains the Agency’s proposal in detail and includes charts identifying specific changes to permitted hunting and fishing proposed to be put into effect at particular wildlife refuge and fish hatchery locations. As already mentioned, however, it is important to view this most recent FWS proposal against the backdrop of new regulations finalized only eight months ago, through which FWS newly allowed or expanded permitted hunting and sports fishing activities on 1.4 million acres of land contained within 74 National Wildlife Refuges and 15 Fish Hatcheries.  You may also be interested in reading the FWS Press Release on its newest deregulatory proposal — which includes language strongly suggesting that the current Administration’s motivations go beyond conservation and even economic purposes, and extend to simple support of recreational hunting and sport fishing as activities and a desire to reward or curry favor with hunting and fishing enthusiasts.  That Press Release quotes the Director of the FWS as saying:

“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. … I deeply appreciate everything sportswomen and men do for conservation and our economy, so I am delighted when we can do something to expand opportunities for them. I hope it will help encourage the next generation of hunters and anglers to continue on this rich American tradition.”

Indeed, doubts as to the motivation and capacity of the current Administration to strike a balance, between protecting wildlife and allowing animals and fish to be killed for sport, that is genuinely centered in conservation goals have been stoked by statements like this as well as other Department of Interior actions suggesting strong, pro-hunting leanings (such as the founding of a pro-trophy hunting advisory panel, a proposal to overturn bear baiting prohibitions, and the installation of a hunting video game in the cafeteria at Department headquarters).

Articles supporting the FWS proposal have appeared in the Klamath City, Oregon Herald and News, as well as in Outdoor News.  Another interesting article, highlighting different perspectives on the proposal as it may affect wildlife refuge lands along the Assabet River in Massachusetts, was published in The Stow Independent. (Identifying certain negative economic impacts, and quoting a wildlife refuge Complex Manager to observe that “[H]unting is one of the Refuge uses – but just one. And it really feels like that’s being given precedence.”)  Although written in response to last year’s round of rule changes, an article published by the Courthouse News Service discusses benefits as well as concerns raised by increased NWR and NFH hunting and sport fishing.

If You are Ready to Comment on the Proposed Changes to FWS Regulations:

If you are ready to comment on the proposed changes to FWS regulations, you can visit the Comment Page for this topic on the Government’s eRulemaking website, type your comments in the space provided for that purpose, and follow the other, simple instructions on that page for electronic submission of your comments.

You can also submit comments in hard-copy letter form, by U.S. mail or hand delivery addressed to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-HQ-NWRS-2020-0013; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 5275 Leesburg Pike, MS: PRB/PERMA (JAO); Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.  (If you choose this method, you should be sure to include the Docket ID No. FWS-HQ-NWRS-2020-0013 in a subject line on your letter.)

Comments will be considered by the FWS only if they are received no later than 11:59 PM Eastern Time on June 8, 2020.