On Wednesday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced the largest expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in history.
The sweeping proposal would increase access for sportsmen across more than 2.3 million acres of federally-managed public land at 97 national wildlife refuges and nine national fish hatcheries.
“America’s hunters and anglers now have something significant to look forward to in the fall as we plan to open and expand hunting and fishing opportunities across more acreage nationwide than the entire state of Delaware,” said Bernhardt in a statement. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hunt Fish Chiefs have been instrumental in our effort over the past two years to streamline our regulations and identify new opportunities for sportsmen and women like no other previous administration.”
The rule announced this week would establish 900 new opportunities ranging from minor changes like expanding season dates for the existing pheasant hunt at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in California, to formally opening the lands on nine units of the National Fish Hatchery System to hunting or sport fishing.
Other large openings would be to allow migratory bird hunting, upland game hunting, big game hunting, and sport fishing at the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge in Florida for the first time and the opening of Bamforth National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming to upland game and big game hunting for the first time
According to USFWS surveys and data, some 101 million Americans, or 40 percent of the United States’ population, pursued wildlife-related recreation to the tune of some $156 billion in 2016. These included an estimated 32 million target shooters and 11.5 million hunters.
Founded in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, there are some 560 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System – a network of lands set aside and managed by USFWS specifically as habitat for wildlife. This week’s proposal would up the number of units open for hunting in the system from 382 to 399.
The move was welcomed by sportsmen’s’ groups such as the Boone & Crockett Club, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and Safari Club International as well as gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association.
“The action today by Secretary Bernhardt to create new access opportunities on many of these properties shows the tremendous success of wildlife restoration efforts to build the sustainable populations that allow regulated hunting and fishing programs to expand,” said B&C Club President Timothy Brady.
Since being confirmed to the post by the Senate last year, Bernhardt, an avid outdoorsman, has already opened 1.4 million acres of public land to increase sportsman access and supported pro-2A events such as National Shooting Sports Month.
The USFWS will accept public comments on the proposed rule for 30 days, beginning with publication in the Federal Register in the coming days.