March 16, 2022
By Lynn Burkhead
If you’ve been keeping up with hunting and fishing trends across the West, then you probably know that public lands and access to them continues to be a major topic of discussion around late night campfires and early morning coffee shop tables.
In some cases, the news about access is good if you like the outdoors and live and recreate in the West. Take New Mexico, for instance, where on March 1, 2022, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in support of public access to the Land of Enchantment’s state waters after unanimously striking down a regulation that allowed landowners to close access to streams running through their properties.
The ruling came after the New Mexico Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers filed suit in 2020, along with the Adobe Whitewater Club of New Mexico and the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, asking the state’s high court to strike down the previous regulations as unconstitutional. Earlier this month, that’s what happened as the court ruling strikes down the state’s Non-Navigability Rule as well as voiding closures on five streams across the state.
“This decision by the state Supreme Court is great news for anglers, boaters and others who use our public waters in New Mexico, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise,” said New Mexico Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Policy Chair Joel Gay, in a news release. “In 1945 the Supreme Court said the same thing – that these waters throughout the state are everyone’s to enjoy for recreational use. We don’t know how that constitutional right got lost, but for decades we have been told otherwise. Our chapter thanks the state Supreme Court for setting the record straight — again.”
While the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling might delight fly fishing enthusiasts and rafters seeking to access streams that were previously off limits, what does that have to do with bowhunters? Simple, the same idea — that public resources throughout the West are everyone’s to enjoy for recreational use — continues to be a hot button topic across the Rocky Mountains and Great Basin region, where countless acres of public ground are in the crosshairs.
One major battle ground is the nation’s National Wildlife Refuge system, a collection of refuges across the nation that began on March 14, 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt established the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge along Florida’s Atlantic coastline. Roosevelt, or TR as many hunters and conservationists know him, knew full well that the future of wildlife and wild places lay in the hands of sportsmen and sportswomen who cared more than others, once noting that “In a civilized and cultivated country, wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen.”
That first NWR unit created more than a century ago started the process of what would become the National Wildlife Refuge System, a system that today is amazingly diverse and big, occupying ground in all 50 states as well as 5 U.S. territories with a total of 568 refuges.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, those refuges occupy some 95 million land acres across the country, some 760 million submerged lands and waters, have 38 wetland management districts, 5 marine national monuments, and 63 refuges with some sort of wilderness area within their borders.
Sounds like the kind of place that is important to someone who hunts, fishes, or otherwise likes the outdoors, right?
Indeed, since out of 59.7 million annual visits to National Wildlife Refuges, some 2.4 million are annual hunting visits while 7.1 million are annual fishing visits.
Those refuge lands are also a part of the current public lands battle ongoing in our nation in regard to such lands and their use. While non-consumptive users comprise most of the annual refuge visits listed above — the Fish and Wildlife Service says that birders and wildlife observers, including some just driving through a refuge in a vehicle, make up some 42.1 million of the 59.7 million annual visits — critics will sometimes grumble and complain that they pay very little if any of the costs of buying land, creating refuges, and maintaining them.
Is that true? Well, when you consider that a great portion of the funding that the Refuge system receives comes through the federal budget, things like the Great American Outdoors Act, and other sources of supplemental funding, the answer is somewhat muddied.
But it’s also crystal clear that America’s hunters and anglers play a key role. As one form of proof, consider the role that the Federal Duck Stamp and those who purchase them for migratory bird hunting play in all of this. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, "Through the federal Duck Stamp, hunters help protect and restore habitat for migratory waterfowl and other birds and wildlife. The stamp, formally called the federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, is required as a license for waterfowl hunting. For every dollar spent on Duck Stamps, ninety-eight cents go directly to purchase vital habitat or acquire conservation easements within the National Wildlife Refuge System.”
Does all of that work? The USFWS notes that since the Federal Duck Stamp’s creation in 1934, sales have raised more than $950 million and counting, money that has helped to protect or restore nearly 6 million acres of habitat for wildlife and migratory birds.
But that's not the only role that sportsmen and sportswomen play in all of this. The Fish and Wildlife Service goes on to say that "Through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, more commonly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, hunters fund a range of conservation programs. The act sends revenue from an excise tax on firearms, ammunition, and other related equipment to state wildlife agencies to be used for wildlife conservation projects, hunter education and outdoor recreation access. Through Pittman-Robertson, sportsmen and women have contributed more than $14 billion to conservation since 1937. These annual payments to state fish and wildlife agencies have resulted in the recovery of deer, turkeys and many non-game species – with benefits to hunters and non-hunters alike.”
So strong is the impact of hunter and angler dollars on the National Wildlife Refuge system and the North American Wildlife Conservation Model that the Fish and Wildlife Service can’t help but acknowledge it.
“Hunters – along with anglers – also were the driving force behind the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a set of wildlife management principles established more than a century ago that declare that wildlife belongs to everyone, not just the rich and privileged,” says the USFWS.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also notes that hunters and the places they have helped protect have been one of the major driving forces behind conservation efforts in our country.
Pay particularly close attention to that last idea as the USFWS — or specifically, the Department of Interior umbrella that the Fish and Wildlife Service falls under — notes that “America’s public lands offer unparalleled opportunities for hunting, allowing families the chance to pass down the nation’s rich hunting heritage. It was this hunting tradition that was the primary driver behind the creation of the National Wildlife Refuge System, which has set aside millions of acres of land for the conservation of all wildlife, while providing wildlife-dependent recreation like hunting and wildlife watching.”
But despite the hunting tradition, and the angling tradition too, being a primary driver behind the creation of the Refuge system, there are some in the nation who are trying to lock sportsmen out.
That battle line is getting drawn by several, including the Center for Biological Diversity, (CBD), a group that is attempting to thwart access for hunters and anglers to 1.3 million acres of public land at 106 National Wildlife Refuges and National Fish Hatcheries across the country.
That group is litigating and attacking the expansion of hunter and angler access to such land, access that began to expand back in August 2020 in a move by the administration of then President Donald Trump in what was hailed by conservation groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation as the biggest expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities in USFWS history.
Not to be outdone, that Trump administration move was followed a year later by the Biden administration when a similar move was announced, news that was once again widely hailed by sportsmen and sportswomen on Aug. 30, 2021. In a press release on that date, the current president’s administration indicated that “This final rule opens or expands 910 opportunities for hunting or fishing (an ‘opportunity’ is defined as one species on one field station). This final rule represents the most significant opening and expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities by the Service than ever before. Today’s action brings the number of units in the Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System where the public may hunt to 434 and the number where fishing will be permitted to 378.”
Biden’s Department of Interior leaders obviously wanted to shout this news from the rooftops and did so in the news release noted above.
“Increasing access to outdoor recreation opportunities is essential to advancing the Administration’s commitment to the conservation stewardship of our public lands,” said Secretary Deb Haaland, a New Mexico native who became the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history as well as the nation’s 54th Secretary of the Department of the Interior, in the news release. “Responsible hunting and fishing helps to promote healthy wildlife habitats while boosting local recreation economies.”
Also commenting on the Biden administration’s move last summer was Martha Williams, the former director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks who was confirmed just last month as the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Today’s announcement furthers a rich tradition of providing quality outdoor recreation experiences to the American people on our public lands,” said Williams. “By expanding these opportunities, we are enhancing the lives of millions of Americans while stimulating the national economy to which hunting and fishing contribute significantly.”
As most hunters and anglers know, talk is cheap and what really matters is putting your money where your mouth is as the saying goes. With that in mind, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation recently noted that just last month in “…February 2022, the USFWS announced it doled out a single-year record of $1.5 billion generated by hunters and anglers for nationwide conservation efforts.”
So, in light of all of the above, all seems good for the nation’s hunters, anglers, and the billions of dollars they have spent to help fund the North American Wildlife Conservation Model, right?
Well, as college football analyst Lee Corso likes to say, not so fast my friend. Because things can change on such topics with lightning speed and now have, in a matter of days. Because of that, you can understand the consternation of hunting and fishing enthusiasts across the country when the Biden administration and the CBD suddenly announced a few weeks ago settlement discussions that put 100+ refuges and the access they now provide to hunters and anglers squarely in the crosshairs of being lost.
According to the Sportsmen’s Alliance, all of that is because "The litigious group alleges that hunting on refuges threatens endangered species due to hunters trampling critical habitat, through lead poisoning as a result of spent ammunition and because grizzly bears are mistakenly shot by hunters believing them to be black bears or in self-defense."
Sounds crazy, right? Well, the Sportsmen’s Alliance also notes that those sudden settlement talks "...send an alarming message to hunting groups that are preparing to intervene in the lawsuit to ensure the rights of sportsmen are protected. Should the administration reach an agreement, CBD would likely not have to spend a single legal dollar, as these settlements often include payment of legal fees using taxpayer dollars. Worse, any settlement will likely include restrictions or revocation of hunting opportunities. The Sportsmen’s Alliance and other conservation groups were offered no warning of the pending talks, nor offered a seat at the table."
And all of this comes mere months after the ink dried on the Biden administration's PR effort last summer to trumpet the huge expansion to hunting and fishing access on public lands.
“A few short months ago, the Biden Administration was touting the largest expansion of hunting and fishing in history on these lands and now they’re negotiating with animal-rights activists over hunting opportunities, while excluding sportsmen from having a seat at the table,” said Evan Heusinkveld, president, and CEO of the Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation, in the SA news release. “It’s no surprise that animal-rights and anti-hunting groups want to stop hunting, but sportsmen shouldn’t tolerate being shut out as the Biden Administration negotiates away hunting opportunities on public lands.”
That recent move has spurred litigation from the Sportsmen’s Alliance, as well as Safari Club International, the National Rifle Association, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Seeking to maintain public access for hunters and anglers in the places mentioned above, these four groups are suing the Fish and Wildlife Service to try and nip this in the bud.
"It is imperative that we act on behalf of our members who support public access to these federal lands, many of which were purchased with dollars generated by hunters," said Kyle Weaver, RMEF president and CEO, in a news release. "RMEF remains a staunch advocate for access and has done so since our founding as a conservation organization nearly 38 years ago. We stand with professional wildlife managers, biologists and sportsmen and women nationwide calling for the dismissal of this blatant effort seeking to deny public access to public lands."
Weaver then added, "We’ve said it again and again, plus the numbers bear it out that hunting is conservation. These frivolous lawsuits by anti-hunting groups are simply reckless anti-conservation.”
Will this lawsuit work? Hopefully so, but then again, who knows since the courts are often unpredictable, sometimes ruling in favor of sportsmen and sportswomen like the New Mexico Supreme Court recently did on stream access laws. But other times, those same rulings can go an opposite and highly frustrating direction. So stay tuned here as we keep you informed about what’s going on in the continuing battle for our nation’s public lands and the access rights of sportsmen and sportswomen who depend on them each year.
In the meantime, be sure and contact your U.S. Representative and your U.S. Senator and make them aware of how you feel about all of this. You can do so in several ways, including by using the Sportsmen’s Alliance Legislative Action Center found at this link.