Keeping Refuges Safe for Wildlife

By Fran Silverman

“If you travel much in the wilder sections of our country, sooner or later you are likely to meet the sign of the flying goose- the emblem of the National Wildlife Refuges. You may meet it by the side of a road crossing, miles of flat prairie in the middle West, or in the hot deserts of the Southwest. You may meet it by some mountain lake, or, as you push your boat through the winding salty creeks of a coastal marsh. Wherever you meet this sign, respect it. It means that the land behind the sign has been dedicated by the American people to preserving for themselves and their children as much of our native wildlife as can be retained along with our modern civilization. Wild creatures, like men, must have a place to live.”

–Rachel Carson

Ecologist Rachel Carson is best known for authoring Silent Spring the 1962 groundbreaking book that exposed the widespread dangers of chemical pesticides and questioned human domination over nature.

What many may not know about Carson is that she was also a scientist and chief editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1939-1953. While working for FWS, Carson, who was also a marine biologist, authored a series of essays about the U.S. Wildlife Refuge System, noting pointedly in one that “wild creatures, like men, must have a place to live” and that the refuges in the U.S. are “dedicated by the American people to preserve for themselves and their children as much of our native wildlife as can be retained. …”

One must wonder what Carson, who died shortly after publishing Silent Spring, would think now of the government agency for whom she penned the elegiac essays honoring the refuges—FWS has expanded hunting and fishing opportunities in national refuges by 4 million acres, representing the single largest expansion in the history of the agency.

The rule changes undermine the very goals of the refuges, which include promoting biodiversity, and are in complete opposition to the will of the majority of Americans, who overwhelmingly prefer peaceful wildlife watching to the shooting and killing of the very species they want to see thrive.

The first federal action aimed at protecting wildlife was the 1864 Act of Congress that transferred Yosemite Valley from the federal public domain to the state of California. One of the terms of the transfer of land, according to FWS, was that the state “”shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within the said reservation and against their capture and destruction for purposes of merchandise or profit.”

By the turn of the century, the public wanted to see even more vigorous actions by government to safeguard wildlife, after witnessing the near extinction of the bison, increasing devastation of wading bird populations by plume hunters in Florida, and the loss of species such as the passenger pigeon.

With public sentiment on its side, the federal government over the decades expanded the National Wildlife Refuge System to more than 568 refuges and 38 wetland management districts.

In 1973, the Endangered Species Act also helped the refuge movement by setting aside habits to protect threatened and endangered animals.

Originally, the Refuge system only allowed hunting in areas where it was already allowed and that was few and far between. But changes to the regulations – including the 1966 National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act and 1997 National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act expanded access to hunting in refuges. The 1966 Act consolidated the various lands into a single National Wildlife Refuge System but also gave the Secretary of FWS the right to permit hunting in the refuges and the 1997 act allowed for hunting to be listed as priority public use along with fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education.

After the 2016 election, the Department of Interior, which oversees FWS, pushed hard to prioritize hunting as a public use in refuges.

On his first day in office in 2017, then DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke reversed an order banning lead ammo and fishing tackle on national wildlife refuge lands and proposed expanding hunting and fishing at 10 national wildlife refuges. It only got worse from there. Even though Zinke left DOI under a fog of an ethics controversy, the department, under Secretary David Bernhardt, continued its efforts to open more refuge land to hunters and to weaken ESA.

This spring, Bernhardt announced yet another proposal for new hunting and fishing opportunities across more than 2.3 million acres at 97 national wildlife refuges and nine national fish hatcheries. The proposal creates nearly 900 distinct new hunting and fishing opportunities.

The number of hunters in the U.S. has been in steady decline, while the number of the American population interested in peaceful wildlife watching activities has rapidly increased. In fact, in every state in the U.S. wildlife watchers – that is, those who like to observe, photograph and appreciate animals in their habitats- far, far outnumber those who hunt.

The 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation revealed that the number of hunters dropped by about 2 million participants, with expenditures declining by 29 percent from 2011-2016. The number of hunters in the U.S. now is less than 4 percent. Yet, there were substantial increases in the number of Americans participating in wildlife-watching activities, representing a surge of 20 percent from 2011 to 2016. Expenditures by wildlife watchers also sharply rose by 28 percent during that same period to $75.9 billion.

But wildlife watchers are not getting the support from FWS that the declining population of hunters are.

Current legislation specifies wildlife observation, wildlife photography, environmental education, and environmental interpretation as priority uses of the refuge system. Yet, we do not see any efforts on the part of FWS to pass regulations promoting these uses.

The Department of Interior and FWS, along with state agencies who cater to hunters because they depend on license revenue need to pivot.

These agencies need change course from relying on revenue from a dwindling number of hunters to instead return to the primary goals of refuges – promote, protect and sustain wildlife and their habitats. Until then, wildlife remains at risk.

Communications Director Fran Silverman oversees FoA’s public affairs and publications. Her previous experience includes editor of a national nonprofit consumer advocacy site, staff writer and editor positions and contributing writer for The New York Times.