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Hunting, fishing on refuges draws lawsuit

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Grizzly bears on federal wildlife refuges could be at risk from expanded hunting opportunities provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to a new lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity. 

An environmental group has sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over expansion of hunting and fishing access to federal wildlife refuges, including the Swan River National Wildlife Refuge in Montana.

The Center For Biological Diversity filed its claim in federal court in Missoula on Monday. It accuses Fish and Wildlife, now led by former Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Martha Williams, of failing to study how increased hunting and fishing on refuges might hurt endangered species like grizzly bears.

Trump administration Fish and Wildlife staff expanded the sport-hunting and fishing access to national wildlife refuges in 2020. That rule change affected 147 refuges and 2.3 million acres throughout the United States. In addition, the agency expanded hunting and fishing opportunities on 77 refuges and 1.4 million acres in 2019, and 13 refuges in 2016.

And the Biden administration continued the practice, announcing increased access to 2.1 million acres through the America the Beautiful Act in August.

Fish and Wildlife's national refuge system encompasses about 95 million land acres along with another 760 million acres of waterbodies. That’s broken down to 567 wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts, receiving 61 million annual visits. In addition to hunting and fishing, the refuges are popular for wildlife-watching, photography, environmental education, hiking and paddling.

The lawsuit uses the 1,568-acre Swan River National Wildlife Refuge as one of its examples. The new rule opened the refuge to black bear archery hunting. Center For Biological Diversity attorneys argued that exposes federally protected grizzly bears to getting killed by mistake or in self-defense by archers seeking black bears.

The lawsuit also criticizes Fish and Wildlife for allegedly ignoring its own research about the risk of lead ammunition and fishing tackle to the health of wildlife. Lead is a neurotoxin, and can damage fish, birds and mammals that ingest it from bullets, shot and sinkers.

“The agency’s analysis of cumulative impacts of lead is limited to two paragraphs and relies on conclusions that contradict their own public media statements that the Hunting and Fishing Rule is the largest hunting and fishing expansion in recent history,” the Center For Biological Diversity attorneys wrote. “(It states) that ‘the number of new hunters or anglers expected to be using lead bullets or lead tackle as a result of the new or expanded opportunities are expected to be very low and so the resulting addition of lead into the environment was negligible or minor.’”

In addition, the lawsuit contends increased sporting activity brings more vehicle traffic, noise and disturbance to sensitive wildlife — all of which Fish and Wildlife failed to adequately analyze as required by the Endangered Species Act and other laws. That increases risks to federally protected jaguars, ocelots, jaguarondi, Audubon’s crested caracara, wood stork and whooping crane.

Besides the Swan River refuge, the lawsuit highlights potential damage to Leslie Canyon in Arizona, Laguna Atascosa in Texas, Everglades Headwaters and St. Marks in Florida, Kirwin in Kansas, Patoka in Indiana, and Lacreek in South Dakota.

A Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman said the service had no comment on the lawsuit as of Monday.

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In response to a new state law, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear managers produced a set of maps showing where they might release grizzlies captured during their official duties.

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