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Interior Expands Access To Hunting, Fishing On Refuges

A hunter wearing camouflage and orange walks across a snowy field
Lori Iverson
The National Elk Refuge offers hunting opportunities for both bison and elk.

The U.S. Interior Departmentis expanding access to hunting and fishing on about 2.1 million acres of Fish and Wildlife Service land – an area nearly the size of Yellowstone National Park.

The action applies to 88 national wildlife refuges and one fish hatchery, and the agency says it’s the largest expansion of recreation opportunities on FWS land in recent history. While the Trump administration expanded opportunities to more acres last year (2.3 million), this year’s change includes more options to hunt certain species in new locations – 910 by the agency's count.

“Nine hundred and ten opportunities just sounds great to us,” said Land Tawney, who heads Montana-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “We look forward to utilizing those opportunities this fall.”

In the Mountain West, the new opportunities include mountain lion hunting on Montana's Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, deer and pronghorn hunting on the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming, and pronghorn and sandhill crane hunting on the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge in Utah, among others. Find the full list here.

Encouraging recreation at these refuges and fish hatcheries also funds conservation, Tawney said. He points to taxes for guns and ammunition, fishing licenses and other fees like “duck stamps," which waterfowl hunters older than 16 have to purchase in the U.S.

“We do things to make sure that we have wildlife in perpetuity,” he said.

Some conservation groups fought the expansion, expressing concerns that refuges shouldn’t be open to hunting and fishing at all.

“Wildlife refuges are supposed to be sanctuaries for wildlife such as mountain lions and bears, as well as endangered species,” said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This does nothing to address the wildlife extinction crisis or Biden’s claim to want to protect 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.”

However, Jessica Sutt with the Mountain-Prairie region of the Fish and Wildlife Service said that refuges were legally set up with this kind of recreation in mind.

“We require offering wildlife-dependent recreation whenever it is compatible with the refuge. And wildlife-dependent recreation is hunting and fishing,” she said. “By law, we encourage hunting and fishing wherever it is possible on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public lands.”

Sutt said this is also a way to manage certain species, and that it’s part of an effort to align state and federal regulations around hunting and fishing.

In a statement, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said, “Increasing access to outdoor recreation opportunities is essential to advancing the Administration’s commitment to the conservation stewardship of our public lands.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Nevada Public Radio, Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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