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Sportsmen Feel Burn of Refuge Closures

By Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
10/10/2013 1:03:37 PM

The government shutdown may have foiled Kenny Wilson's last chance to hunt mule deer at the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in southeast Oregon.

Wilson, an outfitting guide from Coquille, Ore., got lucky in the state's annual mule deer lottery, drawing one of just 15 tags to hunt on the 280,000-acre refuge.

But the high-desert refuge, which teems with deer, pronghorn and sage grouse, has been closed since the government shut down, and the 12-day muzzle-loading season -- an exclusive hunting opportunity -- ended yesterday.

"This is a special tag that takes a lot of years to apply for," Wilson said. "You're rewarded with only 15 people on the refuge."

It's unclear whether Wilson, who is in his 70s, will have another crack at the hunt.

The Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana is one of hundreds that have closed as a result of the government shutdown. Photo courtesy of Doug Moon.

Once someone draws a tag, it typically takes up five to 10 years to draw one again, said Craig Foster, a district biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Foster said it's possible that the department could give Wilson and other hunters back their "preference points," essentially allowing them back to the front of the line to draw tags next year. Or the department could negotiate with the refuge to extend this year's mule deer season. Even so, Wilson said it's unlikely he'll be able to skip work later this month to make the 300-mile drive.

"We have some options to make it right for these guys," Foster said. But nothing can happen until the biologists who manage the refuge come back to work, he added.

Wilson said he's dismayed with the partisanship in Washington, D.C., but doesn't know who to blame.

This month's federal government shutdown -- the first in 17 years -- came at one of the worst times for the nation's 90 million hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers, many of whose prime seasons have just arrived -- or have already gone.

The agency this week also announced the cancellation of a two-day deer hunt at the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, affecting more than 80 hunters; an archery deer hunt at Lake Woodruff refuge in Florida, affecting 100 permit holders; and the first two days of white-tailed deer and feral hog hunting at the Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin refuge in South Carolina today and tomorrow.

The National Wildlife Refuge System sees more than 2.5 million visits annually from hunters, the vast majority of which occur between October and January, according to the Interior Department.

The shutdown has blocked access to 329 refuges normally open to hunting and 271 refuges normally open to angling. That's on top of the several hundred Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service campgrounds and national park hotels that host sportsmen, sportswomen and wildlife watchers.

The closure of 150 million acres of refuges will undoubtedly squeeze many sportsmen onto other federal, state and private lands.

"Sportsmen and women in this country, we have a very financial and very personal financial stake in this federal budget discussion," said Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under the George W. Bush administration. "And frankly, I think that Congress' failure to act is really a slap in the face to all of us in the country, but in particular to more than 37 million hunters and anglers."

The closures also could affect neighboring communities and outfitting stores if sportsmen and women choose to sit the season out. Hunters, anglers and wildlife viewers spend $145 billion each year on gear, trips, hunting licenses and other purchases, according to the latest Interior survey (E&ENews PM, Aug. 15, 2011).

"The hunting season ends when it ends. The animals leave when they leave," said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "So this is forgone revenue that they won't be getting back."

Oregon hunters must apply for a deer tag by May 15 and are notified by June 20 whether they've been drawn, Foster said.

"They've got all that time to get their vacation lined up, and then their hunt got closed," Foster said. "So it's a pretty big inconvenience."

Duck season opened Friday in Oregon, and while there's ample waterfowl habitat on state and private lands in Oregon, hunters may be crunched for space in the Willamette Valley if the government shutdown persists, Foster said.

For John McCollum, 43, of Myrtle Point, Ore., the government shutdown didn't become real until he pulled into the parking lot of a BLM office in Cody, Wyo., on his way to hunt elk east of the Wind River Range earlier this month.

McCollum was hoping to pick up a detailed map that would decipher the checkerboard pattern of public and private lands in northwest Wyoming. As a licensed hunting guide, McCollum said he could ill afford to accidentally trespass onto the wrong lands, but the maps at sporting goods stores lacked detail.

"We never even thought of it," McCollum said of the closure.

McCollum said he eventually purchased a chip for his GPS device that offered color-coded property lines. He shot a six-point elk.

McCollum's company, Eden Ridge Hunts, takes clients on BLM and Forest Service lands in Oregon. But he said he's supposed to call the agencies 72 hours ahead of time notifying them of his arrival, and he can't get anybody on the line during the shutdown.

The shutdown has also halted important habitat improvement projects at refuges, particularly in the Southeast, that are critical stopovers for migrating or wintering waterfowl, said Paul Schmidt, chief conservation officer for Ducks Unlimited.

Ducks Unlimited helps the Fish and Wildlife Service plan and engineer water control structures such as dikes and water pumps that help fill impoundments, essentially restoring wetland habitats that humans have destroyed. But the nonprofit as of last week has had to halt at least nine projects and delay the start of five others, he said.

John McCollum's elk hunt in Wyoming was disrupted by the closure of a BLM office in Cody, but he was eventually successful. Photo courtesy John McCollum.

Two of those projects seek to bolster wetlands at Mattamuskeet, a prime wintering area for a dizzying number of tundra swans, he said.

"We haven't been paid for the work, and therefore our subcontractors are getting antsy," he said. "The contractors can't just stop and go to another project."

Fish and Wildlife has already announced the cancellation of many of the hundreds of events associated with National Wildlife Refuge Week, which begins Monday.

Fish and Wildlife's Southeast Region, which includes Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, earlier this week announced that it had already canceled Saturday's "Big Sit," a coordinated international birding event at the Wheeler refuge in Alabama and the J.N. "Ding" Darling refuge in Florida, and the Okefenokee Pioneer Days Festival at Okefenokee in Georgia.

Democrats this week took to the House floor to urge an end to the government shutdown, which they have blamed on Republicans who demanded cuts to President Obama's health care reform law as part of a general funding bill.

"Each day of this wasteful and unnecessary shutdown, local businesses lose $4.5 million in sales" from wildlife refuges, said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. "We need to end this shutdown, put the government back to work, and open our public lands back up."

Republicans have lamented the shutdown, too, but they blame the Obama administration for making it unnecessarily painful for land users, including hunters.

Alaska Republicans Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young yesterday sent a letter to FWS Director Dan Ashe urging him to open the state's 16 refuges, arguing that the closures violate Alaskans' legal rights to access.

The agency suspended access for permitted guides and other operators such as air taxis whose businesses rely on the fall hunting season, the lawmakers said.

"You must understand that your actions are having a dramatic impact on many Alaskans' ability to feed and care for themselves," the lawmakers wrote in the letter. "You have denied access and closed lands that Alaskans depend on, and which are legally required to remain open."

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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