Hunting is normally popular on the National Elk Refuge, but until the government reopens national wildlife refuges across the country are closed to all public use, including hunting and fishing. (Lori Iverson / USFWS — click to enlarge)
Hunting is normally popular on the National Elk Refuge, but until the government reopens, national wildlife refuges across the country are closed to all public use, including hunting and fishing. (Lori Iverson/USFWS — click to enlarge)

Sportsmen groups worry about economic and conservation impacts of government shutdown

By Kelsey Dayton
— October 8, 2013

Sportsmen are worried about the impact the government shutdown is having on conservation initiatives, businesses and the hunting community as hunting and fishing has been suspended on national refuges across the country.

Kelsey Dayton
Kelsey Dayton

Seven different sportsmen groups held a teleconference Monday afternoon to talk about what the closure of the refuges means during hunting seasons.

“If you are hunting, beginning of October is prime time,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Hunting and fishing produces $86 billion in direct expenditures, Fosburgh said. Half of the people who hunt, at some point hunt on federal lands. Nationally 329 refuges are closed to hunting and 271 are closed to fishing.

In Wyoming all seven refuges and the two fisheries have closed. Three of those refuges, The National Elk Refuge, Pathfinder National Wildlife Refuge and Seedskadee National Refuge normally allow big game, upland game and migratory bird hunting. Before the government shut down the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services proposed opening Cokeville Meadows National Wildlife Refuge to hunting as well.

“Frankly, I think that Congress’ failure to act is really a slap in the face to all of us in the country and in particular to 37 million hunters and anglers who pay federal and state taxes,” said Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

In some places the refuge closures is more than just an inconvenience when people have drawn once-in-a-lifetime permits, like on Kodiak Island in Alaska where each year there are 20 tags for bears and a hunting trip can cost $16,000, excluding travel. The season was supposed to open Oct. 1.

Aside from hurting local businesses and hunters who have invested in trips, the closure has stopped conservation and maintenance work on the refuges.

People think of refuges as protected land that is left alone, but work goes into making sure the areas mimic the natural processes civilization has changed, said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president with government affairs with the National Wildlife Refuge Association. Refuges are actually some of the most heavily managed lands in the country, she said. Right now, important and time sensitive habitat work isn’t getting done.

Land acquisitions and easement activities have halted. Work on threatened and endangered species has stopped, Williams said.

Sage grouse initiatives underway to keep the bird off the endangered species list have paused after aggressive efforts to keep the birds from being listed, said Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation

While lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management remain, in most places, accessible, campgrounds and facilities have been closed and there hasn’t been communication about what will remain open so many hunters, who travel hundreds of miles, are finding  where they intended to stay, hunt or access other land, has closed, Moretti said.

While some people have questioned the closure to accessing refuges and national parks, the sportsmen said they understood especially because there would be no law enforcement in the areas. There are 250 federal wildlife officers still on duty spread across the country, Sorenson-Groves said.

“That puts the assets of the American people at risk,” she said, adding that there have already been some acts of vandalism and illegal takes.

It’s hard to know what the economic impacts of the closure will be, but on average National Wildlife Refuges make more than $4 for every federal dollar, Sorenson-Groves said.

The closures come after the sequestration where U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services lost 17 percent of its budget, according to Williams. “That is significant,” he said. “That’s not fat. That’s right to the bone.”

For commercial guides, the closures could be fatal, Sorenson-Groves said. “This is like Macy’s at Christmas.”

In Wyoming, the bison season opened Aug. 15 on the National Elk Refuge. The elk season was slated to open Oct. 12, but hunters won’t be able to access the refuge so long as the shutdown is in effect. Right now would have been a slow time for hunting on the refuge, Johnie Filbeck, with Double Diamond, an outfitting guide service on the refuge told Peaks to Plains. November and December is usually the best time for bison and it’s still too early for good elk hunting, Filbeck said.

While at the moment, the shutdown isn’t hurting his business, he’s getting anxious as his peak seasons draw nearer. If the refuge doesn’t open to hunting this year, he’ll be out of business.

“You might as well take a gun and shoot us,” he said. “That would just about do us in.”

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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