An eight-year legal battle waged by anti-hunters to end hunting on thousands of acres of public land turned into a major victory for hunters last Wednesday, as a federal judge denied a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) aimed at closing hunting on almost 70 units of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
The lawsuit was actively opposed by a consortium of pro-hunting groups, including Safari Club International, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, NRA, Ducks Unlimited, Izaak Walton League of America, Delta Waterfowl Foundation, and the California Waterfowl Association.
In 2003, the Fund for Animals, which later merged with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), sued to challenge hunting on 37 refuges throughout the National Wildlife Refuge System, claiming that the USFWS had not completed a sufficient environmental analysis of the impact of hunting on these refuges.
In 2006, the case expanded to include additional refuges that had been opened to hunting since the lawsuit began, and the plaintiffs amended their original claim in an attempt to stop hunting on almost 70 refuges throughout the country.
Last week’s ruling from U.S. District Judge James S. Gwin in Ohio stops HSUS’ attempt at using the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to close hunting on national wildlife refuges. In his decision, Gwin wrote that the plaintiffs “are not entitled to an inviolate sanctuary for their preferred uses—Congress has determined that, to the extent possible, hunters, fishers, observers, photographers, and educators must share the refuges.”
“This is a long overdue victory for SCI and our litigation team’s efforts to protect the freedom to hunt and keep our public lands open for hunting,” said Larry Rudolph, president of Safari Club International, which served as co-counsel on the case with the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance. “It is clear that the facts were on our side in this case.”
The ruling does not waive the government’s obligation to conduct environmental analyses pertaining to hunting under NEPA; it does, however, approve the procedure used by the USFWS for complying with that requirement.
Gwin’s decision relied heavily on language in the 1997 National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, which made hunting, fishing and other wildlife-oriented activities priority uses on national wildlife refuges.
“While NRA is very pleased with our victory in this case, we have always felt confident that the language in the Improvement Act (which the NRA was involved in drafting) provided the necessary firewall against HSUS’ continuing assaults on hunting in wildlife refuges,” said Susan Recce, NRA-ILA Director of Conservation, Wildlife and Natural Resources. “However, the NRA remains concerned over the burden that the judge has imposed upon the USFWS by requiring unnecessary NEPA environmental analyses before refuges can be opened to hunting.”
The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 empowered the USFWS to open refuges to hunting when compatible with the purposes for which the refuges were established. The Refuge Improvement Act went a step further by ensuring that refuges are managed for wildlife conservation and that hunting and fishing are priority public uses on refuge units.
“The majority of refuges were created to be open to hunting, but relentless attacks by anti-hunting groups forced Congress to spell it out in law,” said Rob Sexton, vice president of government affairs for the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance. “Now, the courts have once again ruled that hunting is a priority use of refuge land wherever and whenever compatible with wildlife management.”
Hunting is currently permitted on more than 300 national wildlife refuges. There are 553 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System totaling more than 150 million acres. There is at least one wildlife refuge in every state and one within an hour’s drive of most major cities. To learn more about the hunting opportunities that exist on National Wildlife Refuges, visit http://www.fws.gov/refuges/hunting/.