Bond Swamp and Okefenokee Hunts Still Uncertain Pending Ruling
A preliminary judgement by a federal court ruled in favor of the Humane Society of the United States in their bid to stop hunting on 37 National Wildlife Refuges
In response to a federal-court judgement that could stop hunts this fall at Bond Swamp, Okefenokee and 35 other National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) across the country, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has proposed a remedy the agency hopes will appease the court and allow the hunts to continue.
A lawsuit by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) claimed that the USFWS, which manages NWRs, failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its requirement of extensive Environmental Impact Statements prior to establishing refuge hunting seasons.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina ruled in favor the anti-hunting group’s lawsuit in August and said the USFWS must perform costly and lengthy studies on the environmental impact of hunting on the entire refuge system before it can expand hunting opportunities on any single refuge. The court did not close existing hunting programs pending a final decision, which could be handed down any day.
In what appears to be a preemptive move to ward off additional lawsuits by anti-hunting groups, USFWS has told the court that it plans to complete new environmental assessments at 30 refuges that opened hunting programs since 2003. Those refuges are not directly involved in the lawsuit because the hunts were established after the lawsuit was filed in 2003.
USFWS has asked the court not to close any of the hunting programs while it reassesses its NEPA compliance.
USFWS also informed the court it will not finalize decisions on proposed new hunting programs this season at seven national wildlife refuges: Tensas River, Bayou Cocodrie and Upper Ouachita in Louisiana; Hamden Slough and Agassiz in Minnesota; Blackwater in Maryland; and Whittlesey Creek in Wisconsin.
Prior to issuing a final decision on the hunting programs, USFWS will ensure that environmental assessments for all seven refuges adequately assess the cumulative effects of hunting.
Both parties in the lawsuit had until October 31 to file opposition briefs. The court could make a final decision any time following those submissions.
A USFWS news release states: “We are proud of the more than 300 world-class hunting programs on national wildlife refuges that not only fulfill the Refuge Improvement Act’s mandate to provide opportunities for compatible, wildlife-dependent recreation to Americans. The decades-old hunting program is also a fulfillment of America’s deeply rooted outdoor heritage that has, at its very core, the conservation mission that is the foundation of the Refuge System and the Fish and Wildlife Service. In addition to its recreational value, hunting gives resource managers an important tool in controlling populations of some species that might otherwise exceed the carrying capacity of their habitat.”
The lawsuit against USFWS citing NEPA requirements borrows from a successful tactic used over the past decade by environmental groups against the U.S. Forest Service that have all but stopped beneficial habitat improvement and wildlife management on National Forest land.
For those holding quota-hunt permits for Bond Swamp and Okefenokee this fall, those hunts are still up in the air pending the court’s ruling. GON will keep you posted.
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