In November 2021, the animal rights activist group Center for Biological Diversity sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service over a 2020 decision by the Trump Administration to expand hunting and fishing opportunities within the National System of Wildlife Refuges. It recently emerged that the Biden Administration is engaged in private talks to resolve that lawsuit, which could lead to the closure of nearly 100 shelters and potentially millions of acres of public land for hunting and fishing, according to the Sportsmen’s Alliance. Other organizations, however, believe that these negotiations are purely procedural and the USFWS remains dedicated to athletes.
If outdoor opportunities are indeed on the table, some hunters and fishermen across the country say they feel betrayed by the government that recently boasted about increasing sporting opportunities in national wildlife refuges.
“A few months ago, the Biden Administration was touting the largest hunting and fishing expansion in history on these lands and now they are negotiating with animal rights activists over hunting opportunities, while excluding sportsmen from having a seat at the table. ” said Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation President and CEO Evan Heusinkveld. “It’s no surprise that anti-hunting and animal rights groups want to stop hunting, but athletes should not tolerate being shut out while the Biden Administration negotiates hunting opportunities on public lands.”
The Biden Administration’s expansion of hunting and fishing into 90 refuges covering 2.1 million acres in August 2021 is not being questioned. Rather, the extremist environmental group is pursuing a similar action enacted by the Trump Administration in August 2020 that opened up 2.3 million acres in 138 refuges and nine fish hatcheries for hunting and fishing. This lawsuit specifically targets eight such shelters in Montana, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Kansas, Indiana, and South Dakota, but could affect many more if the entire Trump Administration executive order is reversed.
Sporting opportunities at national wildlife refuges and national fish hatcheries have increased steadily under each president since President Clinton’s passage of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act in 1997, which mandated that the USFWS expand compatible recreational opportunities within the 95 million-acre refuge system. These opportunities can be loosely regulated by individual refuges to, for example, stop duck hunting in an area where endangered whooping cranes are present.
The Sportsman’s Alliance says it was surprised to discover that the Biden Administration and the CBD have requested a delay in court proceedings while they discuss the terms of a deal. The alliance and others were preparing to intervene in the lawsuit, but received no warning that it could be settled out of court and have no visibility into the discussions now taking place between the plaintiff and the defendants. Hunters expect to lose opportunities on public lands if a deal is struck, though other outcomes are possible. The named parties in the lawsuit are USFWS Acting Director Martha Williams and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who have ties to the hunting community. The court-ordered stay of proceedings expires on April 8, so more information will be available at that time.
The 56-page CBD lawsuit, filed in Montana’s US District Court, revolves around the effects that lead ammunition and fishing gear could have on endangered species within these specific refuges, alleging that the use of that metal violates the Endangered Species Act. In 2016, the USFWS began the process of phasing out all lead uses in wildlife refuges by 2023, but that order was rescinded shortly thereafter in 2017 by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Lead fishing gear is already banned in many refuges, and lead shot for waterfowl hunting has been illegal nationwide since 1991.
In a jubilant letter to members when they filed this lawsuit, CBD CEO Kieran Suckling made a series of false and misleading statements to rally environmentalists to his cause.
“America’s national wildlife refuges have become playgrounds for trophy hunters,” Suckling began. “The massive expansion of hunting across more than 2 million acres of national wildlife refuges is unprecedented and violates the Endangered Species Act. Foxes, black bears, and many other species will be targeted, and some lodges provide no limits on the number of wildlife that can be shot. Kicking open the doors to increased hunting in roosts will have a ripple effect on entire ecosystems. In places like the Swan River National Wildlife Refuge in Montana, hunters could mistake endangered brown bears for black bears. Ocelots living in the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Texas could be poisoned by lead-contaminated bullets. We will not tolerate further killing of wildlife in even more national refuges.”
Ignoring the fact that hunters in Montana have to take a bear identification course and could face large fines and even jail time for accidentally shooting a grizzly bear, or that waterfowl hunters in Laguna Atascosa have simply non-toxic shot for three decades, the CBD seems to generally allege that hunting and fishing are incompatible with refuge management due to increased traffic and noise. This also ignores the fact that the National Wildlife Refuge System was founded in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most famous hunters in history. Sales of federal duck stamps, mostly to hunters, have been used to purchase and protect millions of acres of these refuges, and excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment continue to foot the bill for much of the management of the shelter.
The CDB seeks to recover attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses associated with litigation under the Equal Access to Justice Act, abuses of which MeatEater has covered before. MeatEater founder Steven Rinella said these are all tactics we’ve seen in the past, but hunters need to back off as hard as ever against them.
“Time and time again, we see animal rights organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity use misinformation and dishonesty as part of their propaganda campaigns,” Steve said. “Your alleged concerns about lead ammunition and increased trafficking in wildlife refuges that the Trump Administration has opened to hunting and fishing are both disingenuous and ridiculous. What they really seek is an end to regulated hunting in all its forms, and they will take that battle to wherever they can win. I hope the Biden White House doesn’t become such a place.”
Brian Lynn is the Vice President of Communications for the Sportsmen’s Alliance. He said it is impossible to know what will happen with the settlement negotiations, since they are taking place behind closed doors between the plaintiff and the defendants. The parties may not settle and go to trial instead. They could decide to restore lead ammo and remove fishing weight. They could alter some of the game and fish management plans on these specific refuges to address concerns about endangered species. They could also end up closing some of these hunting and fishing havens, though that could be politically dangerous before the midterms.
“Our only recourse is to let our elected officials at the federal level, the United States Senators and Representatives, know about this and that they don’t like it,” Lynn told MeatEater. “I hope that some of that political pressure moves up the chain.”
Other sources suggest settlement talks are standard procedure and doubt the US Fish and Wildlife Service would commit such an affront to hunters and fishermen. Still, conservation groups encourage those concerned about these issues to contact their representatives in Congress and ask for their support in maintaining our traditions.