Greens sue to block expanded hunting on wildlife refuges

By Michael Doyle | 11/29/2021 04:21 PM EST

Hunters

Hunters at the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Ryan Hagerty/Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

Environmentalists today sued the Fish and Wildlife Service over the expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities in national wildlife refuges.

Citing potential harms to vulnerable species, the Center for Biological Diversity challenged the Trump administration’s decision last year to expand hunting and fishing on 2.3 million acres across 147 wildlife refuges and national fish hatcheries.

“We’re going to court to ensure that our nation’s wildlife refuges actually provide refuge to endangered wildlife,” said Camila Cossío, a staff attorney at the center. “The Fish and Wildlife Service is shrugging off the many risks that sport hunting and fishing pose to endangered animals, particularly from lead ammunition and tackle.”

The suit was filed in federal court in Montana.

The lawsuit notes, in particular, the threat posed by the use of lead ammunition or lead tackle. Lead can poison endangered animals like whooping cranes if they eat casings or tackle left behind in waterways. The center specifically cites the risk of lead poisoning to jaguars at the Leslie Canyon National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, and to ocelots and jaguarundi at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

The suit also contends that grizzly bears now face an increased risk from hunters targeting black bears in Montana’s Swan River National Wildlife Refuge.

Expansion of fishing and hunting opportunities has been a bipartisan affair, with both the Trump and Biden administrations touting their efforts to provide more access to refuges.

Last year, then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced the opening or expansion of 859 hunting and fishing opportunities at 147 refuges and fish hatcheries, saying the agency is taking “significant actions to further conservation initiatives and support sportsmen and women who are America’s true conservationists."

The annual refuge-specific hunting rules followed a monthslong review-and-comment period that revealed bitter divisions over hunting policies on public lands (Greenwire, April 13, 2020).

The new 2020 rules opened for the first time eight previously closed national wildlife refuges to hunting and sport fishing.

The Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area in Florida, for instance, will now permit migratory bird hunting, upland game hunting, big game hunting and sport fishing.

In addition, FWS opened or expanded new hunting and sport fishing at 89 other refuges.

This includes, for instance, allowing existing big game hunting on additional acres at Willapa National Wildlife Refuge in Washington state and Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, as well as expanding dates for existing pheasant hunting at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in California.

Of the 3,177 individual comments counted by FWS on the rule, 920 were in general support of the proposed changes, and 1,939 were in general opposition.

FWS predicted that the number of new hunters or anglers expected to use lead bullets or lead tackle is "anticipated to be very low, so the resulting addition of lead into the environment should be negligible or minor."

In August, the agency continued what it called the “largest expansion of outdoor recreation opportunities in recent history.” The Biden administration announced it would be allowing hunting or fishing at another 2.1 million acres, including at seven refuges that never before allowed those activities (Greenwire, Aug. 30)

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