This story was updated May 22, 2018 at 6:00 pm.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is making a push to open up more federal land for people who hunt and fish. On Monday, he announced plans to expand or create new hunting and fishing opportunities on 30 National Wildlife Refuges, including two in Montana.
If approved, the proposal would open, for the first time, an elk hunt on the Charles M Russell Wildlife Refuge in eastern Montana, and a fall archery season for big game on the Swan River Wildlife Refuge in western Montana.
Rob Bundy, who manages the Swan River Refuge as part of the Benton Lakes Complex, says the new hunt is part of a land acquisition deal struck last December.
"As we were looking for funding sources, we went back to the Migratory Bird Commission, of which Secretary Zinke presides," Bundy says, "and one of the questions he asked us is what new access opportunities are you going to provide if we grant you the funding."
Bundy says the refuge had already been in talks with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the agency that issues hunting licenses, about the pros and cons of opening up hunting access in the 2,000-acre refuge.
They arrived at a fall archery hunt for big game on the Swan River Refuge, including black bear, elk, mule deer and whitetail deer during the state designated bow season. They’d exclude moose so wildlife watchers could take advantage of the area’s prime viewing, and would require archers to move 100 yards off trail before building temporary blinds.
"We're just trying to make sure that we're doing something that's consistent with what the state would like to see and something that's compatible with the wildlife that's using the refuge at present," Bundy says.
FWP estimates 15 to 30 hunters would take advantage of a fall archery hunt.
Zinke’s is also proposing an elk hunt on the Charles M Russell refuge starting next year.
"We didn't see any refuge management reason or objective to continue having that as a closed area," says Paul Santavy, who manages the refuge. "We're trying to simplify our regulations and get in alignment with the state."
The proposal would open hunting district 652, almost 50,000 acres, for elk rifle and bow season. It rides on the heels of an expanded mule deer hunt already OK’ed for this coming season. That new rule adds two weeks to the CMR’s existing mule deer season to bring it in line with Montana’s five-week season.
Yesterday, we erroneously reported that the mule deer hunt was the only proposed expansion.
Santavy says the changes stem from higher ups in the Interior Department as well as local managers.
"There was a Secretarial Order that directed all of the Department of Interior bureaus, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to align our hunting regulations with state fish and wildlife department regulations," Santavy says.
Interior says hunting advocates are pleased with the proposal, which would add more than a quarter million acres of new or expanded hunting and fishing opportunities nationwide.
John Gale is the conservation director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
"Certainly refuges are a special place that provide refuge for fish and wildlife, that's what they're purpose is," Gale says. "So there has to be a balance of use across the refuge spaces, and we're glad Secretary Zinke is working with refuge managers all across the system to make sure we’re achieving that important balance, while expanding opportunities at the same time."
He says Zinke’s proposal builds on a trend of federal officials opening hunting and fishing access on public lands, which in turn can grow local economies and pave the way toward a future generation of conservationists.
But Arlene Montgomery with Friends of the Wild Swan says Montana already has plenty of hunting opportunities, especially near the Swan River refuge, and that hunters could push out other refuge visitors, like birdwatchers and hikers.
"Our refuge system should be a refuge for wildlife, and I don't know that we should be having hunting on the refuges," Montgomery says. "The Department of Interior needs to also recognize that there are other uses for these lands besides just hunting and fishing."
Documents outlining the proposed archery season on the Swan River refuge say it would have minimal or short-lasting impacts on wildlife, plants and human visitors.
Montgomery is also concerned about the cost of instituting a hunt, estimated at about $45,000, or 3.5 percent of the Swan Refuge’s overall operating budget.
John Gale with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers counters that more hunters mean more money for conservation in the form of federally-levied excise taxes.
"We think that any short-term, upfront costs associated with expanding opportunities there will be more than offset in the long run as we bring in new revenue from existing hunters and anglers going to these places and taking part in the hunts, but also the new hunters that are coming in and taking advantage of these opportunities," Gale says.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will start taking public comments on the proposed hunting and fishing expansions on May 29, with hopes to implement changes ahead of this year’s upcoming hunting season.