Last week the Department of the Interior issued a proposal to expand hunting and fishing opportunities across the National Wildlife Refuge System. It’s an unexpected increase in access to public lands, as it comes from the administration that has presided over the largest reduction of protections for those lands in history. But is this new proposal everything that interior secretary David Bernhardt claims it is?
Let’s look at his statements and see how they compare with reality.
The Numbers Don’t Add Up
The Claim: “New or expanded hunting and fishing opportunities at 74 National Wildlife Refuges and 15 National Fish Hatcheries ... across more than 1.4 million acres.”
The Reality: According to the proposal’s text, the rule would only open up seven wildlife refuges and 15 fish hatcheries to new hunting and fishing opportunities, while amending rules on 67 additional wildlife refuges. So while rules are changing across the mentioned 1.4 million acres, they do not add up to anything close to 1.4 million acres of new places to hunt and fish.
In fact, you’ll find only two wildlife refuges that are going to open to both hunting and fishing under this proposal: the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, which spans 36,000 acres in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and the 330-acre Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. Not only are 36,330 acres a whole lot less than 1.4 million, but even on those acres only certain types of hunting are becoming available in select areas. Green Bay, for instance, is only opening up to sport fishing and whitetail-deer hunting, with the latter allowed in designated areas only. There are no details on how many designated acres there will be within that refuge.
...Nor Do the Impacts
The Claim: Speaking to host Cam Edwards in an interview on NRA TV, Bernhardt claimed that the proposed regulations are “absolutely major” when it comes to recruiting new hunters.
The Reality: The text of the proposed rule addresses the matter succinctly: “Because the participation trend is flat in these activities since 1991, this increase in supply will most likely be offset by other sites losing participants. Therefore, this is likely to be a substitute site for the activity and not necessarily an increase in participation rates for the activity.” The Department of the Interior itself does not anticipate that the proposed rule will create any new hunters.
The Claim: Speaking to Edwards, Bernhardt applauds the economic contribution hunters and anglers make to conservation efforts through taxes on equipment purchases and license sales. He suggests that the proposed rule could substantially increase that contribution. The text of the rule suggests an estimate of $763,500 in increased recreation-related spending in local economies surrounding the wildlife refuges in question, and a total economic impact of $1.8 million for communities adjacent to them.
The Reality: According to the proposed rule’s own findings, the majority of fishing and hunting happens within 100 miles of a participant’s home. The prediction? “It is unlikely that most of this spending would be ‘new’ money coming into a local economy; therefore, this spending would be offset with a decrease in some other sector of the local economy.” So read past the initial $1.8 million claim, and the proposed rule itself actually concludes that the real-world economic impact would be only $351,000 nationally. The proposed rule acknowledges how minuscule that number is. “The maximum increase would be less than three-tenths of 1 percent for local retail trade spending.” Assuming that only a portion of that total is spent on items taxed by Pittman-Robertson or Dingell-Johnson, and on licenses, tags, and duck stamps, the total additional benefit to conservation achieved by these new rules is effectively nothing.
There’s Still Red Tape
The Claim: Speaking on NRA TV, Bernhardt says that he’s “getting rid of a ton of complexity between what state laws said and our laws said, all of which will make it much easier for hunting and fishing.”
The Reality: Hunting and fishing on wildlife refuges is governed by both state and federal laws, and while this new rule does attempt to streamline some language in specific regulations on specific wildlife refuges, it does not alter that arrangement or substantially change any regulations.
The text of the proposed rule highlights, as its biggest regulatory change, the removal of same-day airborne hunting prohibitions on wildlife refuges in Alaska. The reason for that change? It duplicates Alaska state law and is therefore superfluous. You still can’t scout animals by airplane within 24 hours of hunting them, and now there’s just one regulation telling you that rather than two.
Expanding public access to public lands and increasing participation in hunting and fishing are both worthy goals, even if they’re achieved incrementally. While these new regulations may not have a substantial impact when viewed nationally, they could make all the difference when it comes to giving a single person a better hunting season or a more enjoyable day fishing.
What concerns me here is the big picture. Bernhardt is disproportionally championing what’s ultimately an extremely small achievement, while continuing to put most of his department’s efforts behind programs that actually threaten wildlife populations and supporting Trump administration policies that are destroying both public access and the habitats wildlife depends on. And that’s part of a larger pattern of suppressing science, prioritizing extraction, and alleged corruption. Viewed like that, this proposal is nothing but a smoke screen.
Oh, and the fact that NRA TV was a willing platform for Bernhardt to champion that smoke screen and was cheerleading his lies? That’s just one more reason why hunters should leave the NRA.