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Proposal would open more land, water to outdoor enthusiasts

Updated April 15, 2020 - 12:22 pm

Though it may seem like opening days of the fall hunting seasons will never get here, rest assured they will. And when they do, hunters and anglers could have access to an additional 2.3 million acres of public lands at locations across the country.

A proposal by U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt would expand hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation opportunities at 97 national wildlife refuges and nine national fish hatcheries. It’s a move that “would represent the largest expansion of land to hunting and fishing in the history of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS),” according to Ducks Unlimited, one of the nation’s leading conservation organizations.

This builds on 1.4 million acres Bernhardt opened to public access in 2019.

DU was joined by the National Wild Turkey Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Safari Club International and other conservation organizations in lending their support to the proposal.

The USFWS began seeking comments from the public on the proposed rule on April 9, beginning with its publication in the Federal Register, and will do so for 90 days. The Department of the Interior intends to finalize the proposed changes in time for the upcoming 2020-2021 hunting seasons.

This announcement comes at a time when America’s sportsmen are feeling the effects of long-term social distancing and spending day after day at home. Though they can often be secretive about the techniques they use or the places they go, all but the crustiest hunters and anglers generally enjoy the company of friends and family members who share their passion for outdoor places and activities.

So, anything that gives them something to look forward to is certainly a good thing.

“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 USFWS Director Aurelia Skipwith. “I deeply appreciate everything sportswomen and men do for conservation and our economy, so I am delighted when we can do something to expand opportunities for them. I hope it will help encourage the next generation of hunters and anglers to continue on this rich American tradition.”

The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 designates fishing, hunting, wildlife education and environmental education as compatible uses of national wildlife refuges, so long as they are “managed in accordance with principles of sound fish and wildlife management and administration.”

When he signed the act into law in October 1997, President Bill Clinton issued a statement that said in part, “This Act … embodies the principle that whether they cast a line, pitch a decoy, or click a shutter, the 30 million Americans who annually visit and enjoy our refuges have one common and enduring interest — the conservation of fish, wildlife and their habitat.”

The National Refuge System was created by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 when he set side Pelican Island, off the Atlantic coast of Florida, as a refuge to protect pelicans, egrets, ibises and other birds. The system has since grown to include 568 refuges, 38 wetland conservation districts and five marine national monuments covering 95 million acres of land and 760 million acres of submerged lands and waters in 50 states and five U.S territories.

Bernhardt’s proposal would bring the number of refuges where public hunting is permitted to 399 and fishing to 331. The rule also would open hunting and fishing on nine units of the National Fish Hatchery System.

Nevada is home to nine of those refuges, four of which are located within a short drive of Las Vegas. Those are the Ash Meadows, Moapa Valley and Pahranagat Valley national wildlife refuges and the Desert National Wildlife Range. Each of these is closed to comply with coronavirus restrictions but should be on your to-do list once they are open.

There also are two refuges located near Lake Havasu in Arizona, the Havasu and Bill Williams River national wildlife refuges.

If you are planning a trip out of state and are looking for somewhere to pursue your outdoor recreation hobby, the FWS provides an interactive map on its website. You can search the map by state, ZIP code or the name of a specific refuge.

Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column, published Thursday, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions he states in his column are his own. Find him on Facebook at @dougwritesoutdoors. He can be reached at intheoutdoorslv@gmail.com

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