There was good news for hunters this afternoon when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it is opening more than 288,000 acres of waterfowl production areas in North Dakota that have been closed to public access since the federal government shutdown began Oct. 1.
According to a news release from the office of North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe announced the reopening of the federal lands nationwide late today after he was informed of North Dakota’s intent to file a complaint in U.S. District Court.
The complaint, already completed and within minutes of being filed, requested a federal judge require the service to reopen more than 288,000 acres of wildlife lands closed to hunters and other public uses.
Dalrymple and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, in talks with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, said they were prepared to file the complaint at 3 p.m. today. Just minutes before that time, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said they would reopen the wildlife lands nationwide.
“These Waterfowl Production Areas are an important part of North Dakota’s outdoor experience and the law is very clear that a government shutdown is not a legal justification to close these unstaffed, public lands,” Dalrymple said in a statement. “We are pleased that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to reopen these lands in time for North Dakota’s opening day of pheasant hunting.”
Shortly after the governor’s announcement, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued the following statement about its reopening of waterfowl production areas. Read through the government-speak and the message is this: WPAs across the country are reopening effective immediately. The news release makes no mention of national wildlife refuges or other Service-managed lands.
“Despite limited staffing, the Service has undertaken an assessment to determine what, if any, potential exists to open lands to public use consistent with our obligations under the government-wide shutdown. It has been determined that allowing public access to Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) will not incur further government expenditure or obligation and is allowable under a government shutdown. Therefore, effective immediately, all WPAs will reopen to public use.
“As the shutdown continues, if the Service determines that maintaining the WPAs in open status, individually or cumulatively, would likely cause Service expenditures or obligations to be made in violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act, the Service will close public access.”
Clearly, though, North Dakota lawmakers deserve a pat on the back for their efforts to restore access to WPAs, which are important public hunting areas.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s attempt to prohibit access to the wide outdoors was clearly contrary to law, which assures these areas are to be open to hunters and anglers,” Stenehjem said in a statement. “I am delighted that Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to end the confusion, and to allow our sportsmen to enjoy a successful hunting season.”
In the complaint, Dalrymple and Stenehjem said the closures are unnecessary and unwarranted because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not, under normal conditions, maintain full-time staff on the lands and because there are no additional public safety or management issues created by keeping the lands open. Dalrymple and Stenehjem said the law allows closure only in exceptional circumstances, none of which are present.
On Tuesday, the state also sent a letter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, voicing the same arguments in urging him to reopen the state’s Waterfowl Production Areas.
Additional information continues to be available at www.DOI.gov/shutdown.