The simple truth about sportsmen, public lands and the Trump administration

Hunters at Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine. Image courtesy of Elliotsville Plantation

Hunters and anglers know a thing or two about tall tales

By Scott Willoughby

When U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wants to sound smart, he borrows the words of America’s original sportsman-conservationist, Teddy Roosevelt. Trotting out a quote attempting to associate himself with TR has become common practice in Zinke’s ongoing effort to curry favor with the hunters and anglers to whom he claims kinship.

But it’s not that simple. And neither are we.

Zinke once again leaned on eloquent outdoorsman Roosevelt in his recently issued Secretarial Order 3356 (which carries the unwieldy title of “Hunting, Fishing, Recreational Shooting, and Wildlife Conservation Opportunities and Coordination with States, Tribes, and Territories”), recognizing that “in a civilized and cultivated country, wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen.” Then he manages to undermine that truth with a few deceitful words of his own.

Through habitat preservation and enhancement, wildlife management funding, mentorship and more, the cumulative contributions of hunters and fishermen to the unrivaled conservation achievements of our great nation are undeniable. Zinke’s, less so.

“Hunting and fishing is a cornerstone of the American tradition and hunters and fishers of America are the backbone of land and wildlife conservation,” Zinke said in a statement promoting his order. “The more people we can get outdoors, the better things will be for our public lands.”

No argument there. But, truth be told, Zinke’s latest order does little to get people outdoors that wasn’t already being done. With a few judicious exceptions, America’s public lands are already widely open to hunting and fishing.

Meanwhile, Zinke manages to take the seemingly beneficial concept of expanding hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities on public lands and bastardize it with the convoluted land policies of the current administration.

The bottom line is a net loss for sportsmen and others.

Examples are plentiful — ranging from auctioning off vital habitat after unraveling comprehensive sage grouse management plans to resuming efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and other, comparably dubious policies in the name of “energy dominance.” But perhaps the most egregious among them is the recent “review” of 27 national monuments that recommends reducing and altering the management of at least 10 of the nation’s most precious, preserved landscapes. In an apparent effort to reinforce the recommendation, Zinke also included direction to “amend national monument management plans” in SO 3356.

Image by Mason Cummings/TWS

“(This) is the latest example of how the Trump administration is actively moving to support hunting and other forms of outdoor recreation on public lands,” Zinke proclaimed. “This means finding ways to expand hunting and fishing on public lands, improving access, and taking necessary actions to facilitate the enjoyment of these time-honored activities by any member of our society.”

The hard truth, however, is that Zinke’s recommendations could amount to the largest elimination of protections for wildlife habitat in U.S. history and degradation of hunting and fishing opportunities on millions of acres of public lands.

As frustratingly vague as Zinke’s report may be, it clearly promotes opening currently protected habitat to the impacts of drilling, mining and logging. That’s no recipe for recruiting and retaining the next generation of sportsmen.

The contrast in rhetoric versus the reality of prevailing Interior Department policy is far too deep to dive into entirely, but the myths surrounding sportsmen’s perspectives of America’s national monuments merit exposing. If Secretary Zinke really wanted to sound like Roosevelt, he might start here:

Myth: Hunting isn’t allowed on national monuments.

Reality: Zinke’s report falsely claims monument proclamations need to be amended to protect hunting and fishing rights. Multi-use agencies such as the BLM and U.S. Forest Service traditionally manage for public hunting and fishing access, applying the same management policies to national monuments they oversee. In places like Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks, New Mexico’s Rio Grande Del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante, some of the world’s best hunting and fishing have been conserved in perpetuity through monument designation.

Myth: Hunting (and/or fishing) wasn’t allowed at the specific monuments under review until now.

Reality: Zinke and the Trump Administration are pretending to be granting hunting and fishing rights that are already guaranteed by law and policy. Every BLM-managed national monument that the Trump Administration claims to be opening to hunting and recreational fishing is already open to hunting and recreational fishing, starting with Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante, which became the first national monument managed by the Bureau of Land Management in 1996. State fish and wildlife agencies retain management of the wildlife and hunting regulations, just as they do on other public and private lands. For example, the official monument proclamations for Rio Grande Del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico — both under review — plainly state: “Nothing in this proclamation shall be deemed to enlarge or diminish the jurisdiction of the state of New Mexico with respect to fish and wildlife management.” The proclamations establishing marine national monuments also explicitly allow recreational fishing, consistent with applicable laws.

Myth: Hunters and anglers will gain more access if monument boundaries are shrunk.

Reality: Zinke’s report argues for shrinking or changing monuments in order to bolster mining, timber production, grazing and other natural resource-dependent industries that exploit landscapes rather than protect them. The report repeatedly calls for opening up protected areas to extractive activities known to negatively impact hunting and fishing opportunities.

Myth: Hunters and anglers have better access when public lands are not protected as national monuments.

Reality: National Monuments actually protect quality hunting and fishing access on public lands. Uses that were allowed before a monument is created are typically allowed within its borders after the monument is designated, while future activities that would degrade fish and wildlife habitat — such as mining or oil and gas development — are not allowed except where there are already valid existing rights. Zinke’s report falsely claims that hunting access roads were closed since the designation of Rio Grande del Norte National Monument and others.

Myth: Monument designation is bad for hunting.

Reality: Monument designation keeps public land just as it is, preventing changes that would negatively impact our hunting and fishing heritage. Each proclamation identifies the values that are to be protected for a specific monument, including fish, wildlife and hunting and angling, then offer the public opportunity to weigh in on management plans. In short, monuments offer clear assurances for wildlife management and public access. Meanwhile, America’s gridlocked Congress does not prioritize public land conservation. Monument designation through the Antiquities Act offers a path forward that conserves large and vitally important landscapes easily lost or diminished without it. Such habitat preservation almost always equates to increased wildlife populations and improved hunting.

Myth: Hunters are against monuments.

Reality: America’s national monuments are a sportsman’s haven and hunters have been at the forefront of both advocating for new national monuments and the fight to defend them. Many hunters recognize monuments as a way to protect exceptional habitat, and places like Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, Upper Missouri River Breaks and Browns Canyon offer some of the best hunting and fishing opportunities in the country. Sportsmen understand that quality habitat is vital to the prosperity of big game wildlife and game bird populations. National monument designations provide that crucial habitat by protecting public lands from development and disposal.

The Wilderness Society

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The Wilderness Society’s mission is to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places.

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