Interior Department Expands Hunting on National Monument Lands

Move in part to address fewer hunters; potential monument shrinkage spurs debate

Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017

By Mark Carter

As promised, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke instructed agencies managing federal lands to expand hunting, fishing and target shooting opportunities at U.S. national monuments.

Zinke's plan seeks to allow hunting and shooting at as many national monuments as possible; those activities have been banned or limited at some monuments. His secretarial order issued Friday would expand hunting access on public and even private lands. 

Last week, Zinke promised the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation that such an order was forthcoming as he moves to re-emphasize hunting on public lands. The emphasis is partly in response to a preliminary federal report that suggests fewer hunters in the U.S.

As expected, the opening up of more hunting at national monuments was cheered by hunting and sportsmen's organizations and derided by environmentalists' groups. Opponents cite target-shooting bans, for example, as necessary to protect petroglyphs and saguaro cactus, the tall, iconic cactus plant associated with old Western movies that's frequently the target of vandals.

"Lifting these protections would be completely inappropriate, leading to vamndalism and jepardizing public safety," Randi Spivak, public lands director for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, told the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, Department of Interior officials report they've been inundated with personal emails from industry representatives expressing gratitude for the order as well as its scope; one even called it historic. 

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DOI spokesperson Heather Swift told America Hunt the order is wide-ranging, expanding access to public lands for hunting and shooting, addressing wildlife and habitat restoration and management, and working with private land owners on conservation easements and rights of way for hunters. 

Read the full order here. Some of its specific instructions to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Park Service (NPS) include:

  • Within 120 days produce a plan to expand access for hunting and fishing on BLM, USFWS and NPS land. 
  • Amend national monument management plans to ensure the public's right to hunt, fish and target shoot.
  • Expand educational outreach programs for underrepresented communities such as veterans, minorities, and youth.
  • In a manner that respects the rights and privacy of the owners of non-public lands, identify lands within their purview where access to Department lands, particularly access for hunting, fishing, recreational shooting, and other forms of outdoor recreation, is currently limited (including areas of Department land that may be impractical or effectively impossible to access via public roads or trails under current conditions, but where there may be an opportunity to gain access through an easement, right-of-way, or acquisition), and provide a report detailing such lands to the Deputy Secretary.
  • Within 365 days, cooperate, coordinate, create, make available and continuously update online a single “one stop” Department site database of available opportunities for hunting, fishing and recreational shooting on Department lands.
  • Improve wildlife management through collaboration with state, Tribal,‚Äč territorial, and conservation partners.

Fewer hunters?

Zinke hopes the expansion of hunting access on public lands will help address what FWS reports is a declining population of U.S. hunters. Last week, the agency issued its five-year survey of hunters that indicated a drop of 2 million hunters in America since 2011, down from 13.5 million roughly to 11.5 million. 

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Some in the industry are skeptical of those declining numbers. In an editorial, America Hunt Founder & President Porter Briggs called the FWS survey results "suspicious," noting the agency's annual National Hunting License Report that revealed static numbers for the number of licenses, permits and tags issued nationally.

Corey Mason, executive director of the Dallas Safari Club, agrees.

"We are skeptical of the reported marked decline in hunting participation numbers, especially considering that license and tag sales have remained stable," he told America Hunt. "But nonetheless, the survey serves as a reminder that hunters and the conservation community as a whole must remain focused on ensuring that our hunting legacy continues.  The R3 campaign [Recruitment, Retention and Reactivation], including state conservation agencies, conservation organizations and industry partners, has a great opportunity to make significant strides in maintaining and even building hunter numbers, but all must remain engaged. 

"Our efforts regarding youth hunting and outdoor educational events must include nontraditional participants to help broaden the base of hunters."

Mason added that Zinke's order "should be applauded." His remarks were echoed by a full roster of hunting and outdoors groups.

When contacted by America Hunt about the 2016 numbers, several organizations simply referred to the need for increased R3 efforts. David Allen, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said no one does more for wildlife or wild places than hunters.

“Any decline in hunting numbers, real or perceived, is of great concern since hunting provides the lion’s share of funding for nationwide conservation work thanks to excise taxes on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment that garner more than $1.6 annually,” he said. “The RMEF remains committed to growing and ensuring the future of our hunting heritage as well as elk, other wildlife and their habitat.”

Zinke acknowledged as much in an official statement. He called hunters and anglers the backbone of American conservation, and said the more sportsmen and women there are, the better off wildlife will be.

Texas officials have acknowledged a drop in the number of hunters. Texas Wildlife Association CEO David Yeates told America Hunt last month that his state is losing hunters to growing urban areas and people who either lost interest in hunting or never were introduced to it in the first place.

“The urban population today is becoming further removed from the outdoors,” he said. “It’s becoming a harder sell to entice kids to get out and hunt because Mom and Dad don’t hunt. I grew up here in Texas in a ranching family, but fewer and fewer have that tie back to the land.”

National monuments spark more debate

While Zinke plans to re-introduce hunting to many national monuments, the Washington Post is reporting that he has recommended to President Trump a reduction in size of four national monuments and modification of six others. Original reports had indicated that Zinke was looking at reducing the size of three monuments.

Earlier this year, Trump ordered a DOI review of 27 national monuments designated since 1996.

Any such shrinkage or alterations are opposed by environmentists and many outdoors groups including some hunting organizations wary of such moves, which essentially are unprecedented. Presidents have made slight modifications to the boundaries of national monuments in the past, but for reasons of national security or the construction of an interstate highway, for example.

But the Trump administration argues that past presidents made certain monuments too big, some by a long shot.

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Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said in a statement that hunting and fishing traditions aren't threatened by the recommendations, but he fears executive-branch actions to modify one monument could lead to a chain reaction.

“I wish these recommendations were limited to protecting the ability of Americans to hunt and fish within national monuments and setting an example for the appropriate use of the Antiquities Act,” he said. “Instead, the handful of positive measures in the report are overshadowed by recommendations to reduce the size of several national monuments."