Deadly Refuges

By Fox, Camilla | Earth Island Journal, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Deadly Refuges


Fox, Camilla, Earth Island Journal


US wildlife refuges permit logging, hunting and trapping

Caught in the steel-jaw leghold trap, the bald eagle's broken wing dangled limply by his side. Scattered feathers testified to his valiant struggle to escape the that had almost severed his leg just above the talon.

Most Americans think of National Wildlife Refuges as sanctuaries. So did the hiker who found this eagle while visiting the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Minnesota.

Astonishingly, this trap was set under a legal permit granted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) -- the same agency entrusted with protecting bald eagles and other threatened and endangered species. Today, 280 of the 517 refuge units encompassing 93 million acres in 50 states, allow trapping and 287 permit hunting.

One 1990 government study showed that for every "target" animal caught in a body-gripping trap in the US, as many as ten non-target animals are captured.

The most frequently targeted animals are raccoons, beavers, red foxes, mink, and skunks. Other species include bobcats, lynx, and coyotes, gray/timber wolves and feral dogs and cats. Non-target species most commonly killed include river otters, rabbits, hares, and domestic pets. Other non-target victims include Canada geese, alligators, ducks, hawks, owls, eagles, and bears.

When Theodore Roosevelt established the first National Wildlife Refuge on Pelican Island, Florida, in 1903, hunting and trapping were strictly prohibited. But amendments in the 1950s to the 1934 Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act opened many refuges to trapping. The Duck Stamp program allowed hunters and trappers to argue that, since they now were the chief financial supporters of the refuges, they had the "right" to kill wildlife on public lands.

The 1962 Refuge Recreation Act expanded "recreational uses" to include hunting, trapping, grazing, and mining inside NWRs. And, in 1966, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administrative Act established a "compatibility standard" for allowing public uses on refuges.

The FWS defines "compatible" use as "a wildlife-dependent recreational use or any other use" that will not "materially interfere with or detract from the fulfillment of the Mission of the System or the purposes of the refuge." The use must promote the "principles of sound fish and wildlife management and administration, and otherwise must be in the public interest."

Before a refuge is opened to hunting or fishing, the FWS must go through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires public comment. Trapping programs, however, do not require public comment. Individual refuge managers may decide if trapping is "compatible" with their refuge.

The FWS boasts that it is in these refuges that endangered species "often begin their recovery or hold their own against extinction." But how can the 240 listed species in the NWRs "hold their own" when more than 60 percent of refuges tolerate mining, oil and gas drilling, cattle-grazing and timber-cutting?

According to an April 1999 Decision Research national opinion poll, 79 percent of Americans oppose trapping on refuges, 59 percent support banning all recreational hunting on refuges and 88 percent believe wildlife and habitat preservation should be the highest priority of the refuge system. Ballot initiatives in Arizona, California, Colorado and Massachusetts have severely restricted the use of body-gripping traps. Ironically, while public support for trapping and hunting declines, the FWS continues to open more refuges to trappers and hunters. …

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