The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in recently announcing the opening or expansion of 910 new opportunities for hunting or fishing on national wildlife refuges, could hardly contain its pride.
“This final rule,” the agency declared on August 30, “represents the most significant opening and expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities by the Service than ever before.” The rule brings “the number of units in the Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System where the public may hunt to 434,” or about four-fifths of all refuges. And all this, it stated, “in time for the upcoming 2021-2022 hunting seasons.”
“By expanding these opportunities,” explained the Services’ Principal Deputy Director Martha Williams, “we are enhancing the lives of millions of Americans while stimulating the national economy to which hunting and fishing contribute significantly.”
In the weeks since this announcement, President Biden nominated Ms. Williams to serve as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She appeared last month before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to convince lawmakers she’s the right person for the job of protecting wildlife in the U.S.
In her comments about the refuge hunting expansion, Ms. Williams may be guilty of overstatement. There aren’t millions of hunters who will take advantage of their liberalized rules for hunting and use refuges as a stage for their sport. According to the Service, there are about 13 million hunters in the U.S., and they use hundreds of millions of acres of federal lands (mainly national forests and Bureau of Land Management acreage), state lands, and private lands. Perhaps a few thousand sportsmen will take advantage of these new hunting opportunities.
The rhetoric in the official announcement is a case of massaging a political constituency that has long held disproportionate sway at the agency. By consulting the Service’s own data, agency leaders will quickly recognize that it is hikers, wildlife watchers and other wildlife enthusiasts whose numbers are expanding by millions, and undoubtedly the biggest practical users of the refuge system.
Omitted from the announcement was any mention of how expanding hunting on “wildlife refuges” will also increase lead ammunition loads left behind on refuge lands and waterways. That’s an especially relevant point given that the last director appointed by a Democrat President demanded reform on this subject. In January 2017, Dan Ashe issued a “Director’s Order” in January 2017 to ban lead ammunition on national wildlife refuges within five years – in short, a proposal that would have taken effect about now. That order was nixed by Ryan Zinke, Trump’s Interior Secretary, who reversed the Ashe policy on his first day in office. It was an act of allegiance to the National Rifle Association.
With more than 130 species known to suffer from the toxic effects of spent lead ammunition, dispersal of lead ammo is no small matter. Scavenging birds including condors, owls, eagles, and hawks, as well as mammals such as coyotes, are all at risk. Death from lead poisoning is painful; even when lead exposure isn’t high enough to kill an animal, it doesn’t take much to weaken an animal to the point that it succumbs to predation or disease. The number of wildlife poisoned by spent lead on all lands in the United States has been estimated to be in the millions every year.
Restricting lead ammunition has been effective in mitigating threats to wildlife, a benefit to both wildlife watchers and hunters alike. In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned lead ammunition in waterfowl hunting – also opposed by the NRA but proposed by President Ronald Reagan’s Fish and Wildlife Services and executed by the Republican administration of George H.W. Bush. That policy is thought to have saved as many as 1.4 million ducks and geese and other migratory waterfowl annually.
In 2013, California became the first state to adopt a policy to ban the use of lead ammunition in hunting, with the policy in full effect by July 2019. Given the overwhelming science showing that lead kills millions of wild animals a year, many state-based wildlife scientists have been urging restrictions on the use of lead, even as they face pushback from the political appointees at their agencies who hew to the orthodoxy of the NRA. Ironically, resistance to lead ammunition bans, in the end, reduces hunting opportunities for rank-and-file hunters by increasing incidental mortality of their quarry.
Ammunition made of steel, copper, and bismuth, according to rank-and-file hunters who have made the switch from lead, performs better ballistically than lead. With that practical element in mind, it should not be a major lift for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set an example for hunters and build on the national policy on waterfowl hunting and to apply it to all refuges (where waterfowl hunting is the dominant form of hunting). To expand hunting on refuges unfairly tilts the uses of the refuges in favor of one user group, but it is also reckless in allowing a toxic element to be widely dispersed on lands set aside to benefit wildlife. Lead has been taken out of gasoline, paint, and other commercially used products , and it is past due to take it out of the practice and commerce of hunting.
Wolves in the crosshairs and silence from USFWS
Meanwhile, Interior leaders have also been on the wrong side of the issue of restoring federal protections for wolves.
In mid-November, federal attorneys representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appeared in U.S. District Court in San Francisco opposing a series of lawsuits by animal welfare organizations, Native American tribes, and conservation groups to restore federal protections under the Endangered Species Act for wolves in the Upper Midwest and in other parts of their range.
After the January 2021 delisting of wolves, Wisconsin made plans to eliminate about half its wolf population. Emboldened by that delisting decision, authorities in Idaho announced plans to kill 90 percent of its wolves, with Montana potentially allowing up to 80 percent of wolves there to be killed. Idaho and Montana set up bounty programs to encourage the killing, with Idaho allowing hunting of wolves 365 days a year. These three states authorized the use of neck snares and steel-jawed leghold traps, and two of them even allowed the use of packs of dogs – resulting in bloody fights between the animals. The fall hunting and trapping seasons in Idaho and Montana are already underway, with nearly 300 wolves already dead, including several wolves from Yellowstone National Park’s most famous pack gunned down after they stepped outside the protected area. And also in Idaho, government hunters and trappers have added to the carnage by killing litters of pups in their dens on public land – a particularly ruthless act of wolf control, since these newborns did not have any capacity to cause harm to anyone in their few, short weeks of life.
If their plans are not curtailed by the courts or the federal government, these three states and the USDA could collectively kill nearly half of all wolves in the lower 48 states. We’ve not seen a premeditated assault like this one on wolves or any other large carnivores in the United States in more than a century.
And the public reaction from top officials at the Interior Department: near silence. It’s like State Department leaders going silent on a startling case of international human rights abuses, or the Department of Agriculture staring at its feet as a food safety crisis, born of reckless animal handling practices, spreads. In this case, Interior leaders are acting like a set of bystanders as a wildlife assault plays out in full view, mainly on the lands it oversees, and focused on a species that it had been working to recover for nearly 40 years. There has been no condemnation or even criticism of the bounty programs, the use of dogs in hunting Canis lupus, or kill plans that approach extermination levels. If Interior Department honchos don’t speak out on this kind of collective attack on wolves, is there any set of state actions that would ever warrant a compensatory response from the federal government?
Fortunately, a lawsuit by Animal Wellness Action, the Center for a Humane Economy, and its allies has stopped the fall hunting and trapping season in Wisconsin. But there are no similar legal avenues in state courts in Idaho and Montana. Only emergency listing pleas to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland can prevent the body count from surging in Idaho and Montana. Dozens of groups — including tribes throughout the United States, AWA, and the Center — have appealed to the Interior Secretary to conduct an emergency listing action for wolves in the West. Led by Cory Booker and Gary Peters, 21 Democrat Senators have called on Haaland to do the same.
The agency has also heard from Mr. Ashe, a lifelong hunter who had supported wolf delisting when he ran the Service. Ashe recognizes that the states have abrogated their core responsibility to provide sufficient protections for wolves this year. “The government must immediately reinstate protections for wolves,” he says, describing the situation as “an epidemic of cruelty toward wolves [that] is erasing progress made to conserve this species.”
Biden team forgetting animal welfare is a major national concern
Thus far in the Biden presidency, not a single rule or major federal action has been announced to advance animal welfare by any agency. Nominees to key posts are not treating animal issues as any sort of priority.
The Trump Administration worked to unwind federal protections for wolves, bears, and other predators on 76 million acres of national wildlife refuges and 20 million acres of National Park Service (NPS) lands in Alaska. Neither the Service nor NPS has said a word about restoring these protections or curtailing assaults on predators on refuges and national preserves. There’s also been silence on limiting – or better yet, stopping – imports of sport-hunted trophies of lions, elephants, and other foreign-listed threatened and endangered species, something that even President Trump condemned when he was President, rebuffing Safari Club International in the process.
Indeed, any new set of agency leaders takes time to get acquainted with their responsibilities. But the orientation phase has concluded, and it’s time to act on the values of the nation on caring for wildlife. The assault on wolves is the most urgent matter. If the 2021 wolf toll soars, it would be an unforgettable moment in the history of wildlife management in our nation.
Join us in asking Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to reinstate emergency protections for gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act!