Wildlife Refuge System: Refuge for Whom?

Article excerpt

Wildlife refuge system: Refuge for whom?

In 1903, prompted by the slaughter of birds for the millinery trade, President Theodore Roosevelt created the first National Wildlife Refuge to protect pelicans, egrets and herons. Today there are 90 million acres in the National Wildlife Refuge System, representing most of the ecosystems found in the United States. Charged by law with protecting wildlife, the refuge system has adopted a patchwork of practices, with considerable numbers of the refuges allowing hunting, trapping, timber cutting, grazing, farming and even oil and gas development, in addition to use for public recreation.

Amid an intensifying debate over such practices, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which manages the refuge system, is now beginning a major evaluation of its policies. After a series of public hearings and a call for written comments between now and May 3, it plans to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the operation of the refuge system. Environmental groups see this evaluation as their opportunity to pressure the service to curtail "consumptive" activities on the refuges. Organizations representing recreational hunters and trappers are also testifying to preserve their use of the areas.

"We are inteested in the changing public concept of what the refuge system should be," says Noreen Clough of FWS. She says conservation groups are demanding new focuses of wildlife management, for example on nongame species of animals or on biological diversity. Some environmentalists oppose the deliberate protection of any animals, except threatened or endangered species, at the expense of others.

The preparation of an EIS is a routine procedural matter, says a spokes person for the FWS. The last statement was done 10 years ago, when the system contained less than half its current acreage. But John Grandy of the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States says the evaluation is also the result of a lawsuit brought by his organization challenging all sport hunting programs on the wildlife refuges.

"Refuges are no longer regions of sanctuary," says Jennifer Lewis of the Humane Society. According to FWS records, she says, more than 400,000 refuge animals each year are killed by hunters and trappers, and millions of birds there are killed by poisoning attributable to lead shot. In addition, hunting disrupts other recreational uses of the refuges.

Clough, however, describes the current hunting policy, which permits hunting on 250 of the 434 refuges, as "a legitimate management tool on many refuges. …