The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released a Draft Hunting & Fishing Strategic Plan for our national wildlife refuge system. Among the 24 recommendations is a directive that FWS work closely with state fish and wildlife agencies to first review current hunting and fishing opportunities, then prepare a strategy for increasing quality opportunities on the refuges. And it specifically identifies opportunities for youth and people with disabilities as a priority. The recent plan is not so much new as it is part of an ongoing process.
The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 gave FWS a new process for determining compatible uses on refuges. The act further recognized that when determined to be compatible, certain wildlife-dependent recreational uses such as hunting are legitimate and appropriate public uses for these lands.
Furthermore, it designated these as priority public uses, and required they be included in comprehensive conservation plans for each refuge.
Since the act’s passage, refuges open to hunting increased from 271 to 329. Additionally, many refuges already open to hunting created new hunting programs and opportunities. In 2012, there were more than 2.5 million hunting visits to refuges.
Going farther back provides more insight into why hunting is consistent with the refuge system. By the beginning of the 20th century, populations of many wildlife species had been decimated by human exploitation. Some were gone, like the passenger pigeon and the heath hen, with others on the brink of extinction.
The modern conservation movement was born when sportsmen led the call for a change from unlimited use to wise use of natural resources. And it was prominent sportsmen like Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell who led the early efforts. While serving as president, Roosevelt created the first national wildlife refuge at Pelican Island in 1903. That was followed by 50 other refuges, 150 national forests, five national parks, 18 national monuments, four national game preserves and 24 reclamation areas.
These early efforts eventually led to development of the North American model of wildlife conservation, wherein wildlife was declared a public resource to be held in trust and managed by government agencies for the public benefit. It also established that every citizen should have an opportunity to hunt and fish under the laws created through public process.
Wildlife conservation is a great concept — but it costs money. Here again, hunters and anglers have led by example, supporting conservation through purchase of licenses, tags, and stamps; excise taxes on guns, ammo, bows and arrows; and through memberships and donations to non-governmental conservation organizations that contribute to research and habitat management and acquisition.
There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t forget who brought you to the dance. That’s sound advice for the millions of people who visit the 561 refuges.
Refuges serve multiple purposes. They provide a place for wildlife, and for people to enjoy this public resource, both passively and actively. And if it weren’t for the financial support of hunting, many of them would not exist.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: