More Federal Lands to Be Opened to Hunting, Fishing

Published August 1, 2019

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced it is significantly revising rules for hunting and fishing on federal wildlife refuges across the nation.

The changes would revise federal hunting and fishing rules at wildlife refuges in all states to coincide more closely with state regulations and to expand or create new opportunities for hunting and fishing on approximately 1,451,000 acres of federal land.

The proposed rule changes, announced on June 5 by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, will result in “a major expansion of hunting and fishing in the nation’s wildlife refuges,” said Bernhardt in a press release.

The proposal follows a first-ever comprehensive review of federal and state rules by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

New Outdoor Opportunities

The proposed rules would open up hunting or sport fishing in nine National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) areas where the activities are currently forbidden.

The changes would also expand hunting and sport fishing at 65 other NWRs, formally open 15 units of the National Fish Hatchery System (NFHS) to those activities, and add pertinent station-specific regulations for other NWRs and the 15 NFHS sites on migratory game bird hunting, upland game hunting, big game hunting, and sport fishing.

Final public comments on the rule changes are due by August 12. Bernhardt says he hopes to have the final rules in place in time for this September’s dove season.

‘The True Conservationists’

Secretary Bernhardt credited President Donald Trump for DOI’s decision to expand hunting and fishing opportunities on federal lands.

“The president fundamentally gets that hunters and anglers are the true conservationists in our society,” said Bernhardt in a statement. “He understands that history and that we need to act in efforts to expand hunting and fishing while at the same time being respectful of private land rights, [and] respectful of state law.

“[The proposal is] a dramatic statement about our commitment to access. … The goal is to get more people out,” said Bernhardt. “The biggest reason people don’t start or don’t stay hunting or fishing is largely the access to areas. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to expand access.” 

Tangle of Authorities, Regulations

A February 2018 Congressional Research Service report stated hunting and fishing generate billions of dollars each year for regional economies, but conflicting regulations from agencies with federal land management responsibilities and between federal and state agencies unnecessarily limit opportunities for outdoor recreation.

“Each year, millions of individuals participate in hunting and fishing activities, bringing in billions of dollars for regional and national economies,” said R. Eliot Crafton, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service and author of Hunting and Fishing on Federal Lands and Waters: Overview and Issues for Congress. “Most federal lands and waters are open to hunting and/or fishing. Stakeholders contend that these areas provide many hunters and anglers with their only or best access to hunting and fishing.

“Federal land management agencies have hunting and fishing policies … derived from statutes establishing the agencies as well as federal and state laws pertaining to hunting and fishing,” Crafton writes. “In general, federal land management agencies have hunting and fishing policies that are either open unless closed or closed unless open, depending on the mission of the agency.”

Part of DOI’s effort aims at harmonizing federal and state hunting and fishing regulations, which Bernhardt says is a complex maze of rules that is difficult for the average person to navigate.

“You’ve got to be a lawyer to figure out if you can hunt or can’t hunt,” said Bernhardt.

Implementing Orders

Prior to the DOI’s announcement, the Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council, chaired by Jeff Crane, president of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, submitted a letter to Bernhardt urging the agency to continue its efforts to prioritize public hunting and fishing opportunities on federal lands that were expanded through Secretarial Orders 3347 and 3356 issued by former DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke in 2017.

Zinke said he issued those orders to carry out Trump’s Executive Order 13443 directing federal agencies, including DOI, to improve the management of game species and their habitat on federal lands and expand and enhance hunting opportunities. Zinke said at the time Trump’s order was about upholding the conservation legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt.

“As a servant of the American people, the Department will continue to strengthen President Roosevelt’s conservation stewardship legacy through this Order by seeking to expand recreational and conservation opportunities for all Americans,” said Zinke.

Reducing, Modifying Restrictions

As published in the Federal Register, the proposed rule also requires administrative updates to every NWR refuge-specific regulation, removes approximately 2,100 regulations with no impact on the administration of hunting and sport fishing in the refuge system, and simplifies the language of more than 2,900 refuge-specific regulations to comply with Trump’s mandate to ensure rules are written in simple, plain language the public can easily understand.

The proposal also amends certain regulations specific to Alaskan NWRs, such as removing restrictions on same-day hunting under certain conditions for select species on the day hunters fly into camp.

The proposed rule changes will improve hunting and fishing opportunities, says Crane, who lauded the move.

The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation applauds Secretary Bernhardt for his efforts to expand hunting and fishing opportunities within the National Wildlife Refuge System,” Crane said. “This announcement builds off momentum generated over the last few years through Interior Secretarial Orders and advances recent recommendations submitted by the Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council to increase hunter and angler access to federal lands and waters, including the Refuge System.”

Duggan Flanakin ([email protected]) writes from Austin, Texas.