Fish and Wildlife seeks ‘historic’ hunting expansion

U.S. Fish and Wildlife proposals to expand hunting and fishing opportunities on national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries include Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, one of the listed refuges under the proposed rule.

BOARDMAN — When is a wildlife refuge not really a refuge? How about when the wildlife inhabiting it cannot be considered safe from hunting?

If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gets its way, that’ll soon to be the situation at an expanded list of national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries around the country.

Announced on April 8 by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt as “historic” and “the single largest expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities” in the nation’s history, the USFWS’s massive proposal creates or expands hunting and fishing at 97 wildlife refuges and nine fish hatcheries, including 13 locations in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, and two more in Northwest Montana.

The expanded land would take in a cumulative area larger than the entire state of Delaware.

The proposed rule would create nearly 900 distinct new hunting and fishing “opportunities,” defined as one species on one field station in one state, according to the USFWS.

The USFWS is taking public comments on the proposal until June 8. Of the more than 2,000 public comments reviewed at the time of publication, an unofficial assessment suggests opponents of the proposal far outweigh supporters.

“I am appalled at this misguided and unethical proposal,” reads one publicly posted comment typical of naysayers. “In a time of shrinking habitat and increasing stress on wildlife, this proposal is simply wrong.”

Significant impact on Columbia River Basin

“I think to the average person, when they hear ‘wildlife refuge,’ they take it literally that this is a refuge for wildlife, not a place where you go kill them,” Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, told Columbia Insight. “It’s a common misunderstanding, but there’s already a lot of hunting allowed in wildlife refuges.”

Near Portland, however, the Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge would be opened for hunting of migratory birds for the first time.

Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon would also see open migratory bird hunting for the first time, along with expansion of existing upland game hunting to new acres already open to other hunting.

Around the Columbia River Gorge, three Washington fish hatcheries would be open for sport fishing and game hunting. Under the new proposal, the areas around Little White Salmon and Spring Creek national fish hatcheries could see the hunting of game including bobcat, deer, elk and bear.

Five miles north, at the Willard National Fish Hatchery, recreational fishing would become officially permitted. The USFWS noted in its environmental assessment, the public already enjoys unofficial access to the site.

Just east of Flathead Lake in Montana, the Swan River National Wildlife Refuge would become open to black bear hunting on acres already open to other hunting.

Little data behind decision

“Although this involves millions of acres nationally, the Department of Interior didn’t require an environmental impact statement. Only an environmental assessment, which is a cursory review,” said Lang. “Are there any threatened or endangered species that are on those lands? Those are the kind of questions we need answered.”

After Bernhardt’s announcement, Friends of the Columbia River Gorge sent a letter to the USFWS urging the agency to create environmental impact statements for the proposed sites. The letter also pointed to the hatcheries’ close proximity to one another.

The “hunting plans propose hunting on small acreages near residences, farms and major roads,” the letter reads. “This poses an unnecessary risk to public health and safety.”

At Little White Salmon and Spring Creek national fish hatcheries, where small game animals, such as porcupine and bobcat could be made available to hunters, the USFWS admits to having no numbers on small game populations.

“There are no formal population surveys for small game mammals, furbearers or unclassified wildlife,” reads a draft of the environmental assessment for Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery. At Willard National Fish Hatchery, the service says, “There has been no formal assessment of wildlife on the hatchery property.”

Despite an apparent lack of rigorous study, the USFWS says the unprecedented expansion won’t cause “significant adverse cumulative impacts” to the environment. The service also states in each of its environmental assessments that big game hunting would have a “minor effect” on game animal populations and result in “little consequence to the statewide population.”

“The challenge with this proposal is that it seems to have had very little, if any, conservation science given to it,” said Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild. “It seems more like something that’s designed to generate a positive news cycle from the Trump administration, rather than something that meaningfully expands hunting and fishing access.”

The USFWS did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Tension between federal and state regulators {span class=”print_trim”}

Official Trump administration environmental policies have rolled back many of the Obama-era policies meant to address climate change and pollution. Administration officials have characterized such regulations as burdensome.

In January, President Trump proposed doing away with the very law that requires his administration to produce environmental impact statements.

“From day one, my administration has made fixing this regulatory nightmare a top priority,” Trump said at a press conference. “And we want to build new roads, bridges, tunnels, highways, bigger, better, faster and we want to build them at less cost.”

USFWS director Aurelia Skipwith incongruously lauded the proposal as cause for a post-pandemic celebration.

“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,” said Skipwith.

A former oil and gas lobbyist, Interior Secretary Bernhardt has been involved in numerous scandals including an official investigation into ethics violations. The rollout of his plan seems likely to widen the gulf between Trump administration edicts and state and local conservation policies.

In April, Washington Department of Ecology director Laura Watson issued a statement concerning a recent decision by the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers to exempt thousands of wetlands and streams from federal oversight. That federal rule would take effect June 22.

“As the White House continues its relentless attack on the environment, the Washington Department of Ecology stands firm in our commitment to protect wetlands, ponds and streams that migratory birds and salmon depend on,” said Watson. “This is another tragic abdication of federal responsibility to protect the environment.”

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