Waterfowl hunter at sunset
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USFWS Opens More Hunting and Fishing Access, Looks to Phase Out Lead Use

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced 109 hunting and sport fishing opportunities for game species on 18 wildlife refuges as part of an effort to increase recreational access to public lands. A total of 38,000 acres across the nation have been opened to the public under the America the Beautiful initiative. "We are committed to ensuring Americans of all backgrounds have access to hunting and fishing and other recreational activities on the lands and waters of the National Wildlife Refuge System," Service Director Martha Williams said. "These regulations increase public access opportunities, better align the Service with state regulations, and help to promote healthy wildlife habitats while boosting local recreation economies."

The Wildlife Refuge System contains 568 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts, most within an hour's drive from major metroplexes. While these refuges serve as important habitat for flourishing species, they also receive around 65 million visits annually. Under this rule, the public may now hunt in 436 units and fish in 378 units. New refuge opportunities that are opening for the first time include turkey hunting at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge in Washington; upland game and big game hunting at San Diego National Wildlife Refuge in California; and migratory game bird, upland game, and big game hunting at Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge in Maine and New York.

Six wild turkeys with their tail feathers spread during the Wisconsin fall.

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While the increased access promotes wildlife habitat preservation and helps boost the recreational economy, the USFWS expressed concerns about the negative impacts on the environment from lead ammunition and fishing tackle. However, the department anticipates that this announcement won't increase the use of lead and fishing tackle past fall 2026. They plan to monitor the increased public land use until then, while working on phasing out lead ammunition and tackle.

While some outdoor enthusiasts are excited about the expanded access, others are concerned that this rule is a "bait-and-switch" tactic. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, supported by other groups including Sportsmen's Alliance and the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), criticized the action in a press release, saying, "Despite promises from President Joe Biden that his administration would 'follow the science,' the USFWS offered no objective scientific evidence establishing that the use of traditional lead core ammunition poses a risk to human health or wildlife populations to support its decision to phase in a ban."

Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for ASA, said, "It is deeply concerning that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ignored science and the concerns of the sportfishing industry. We hope that USFWS realizes the error they made in this rule and reconsiders its implementation. Anglers should be able to keep using traditional fishing tackle as they have for generations."

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