(CN) – Outdoor recreation advocates praised a Trump administration proposal Wednesday to expand hunting and fishing on 1.4 million acres in national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, but conservationists fear it could weaken wildlife protections in some areas.
“It’s critically important that any expanded hunting or fishing doesn’t undermine the reason Congress created wildlife refuges in the first place – to provide needed shelter and protection for our country’s wild animals, plants and fish,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced the plan to expand fishing and hunting at 74 national wildlife refuges and 15 national fish hatcheries. It would be the widest expanse of land and water for which hunting and fishing has ever been permitted in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System.
“Hunting and fishing are more than just traditional pastimes as they are also vital to the conservation of our lands and waters, our outdoor recreation economy, and our American way of life,” Bernhardt said, speaking at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in Oak Harbor, Ohio.
The proposal also seeks to revise and simplify refuge hunting and fishing rules to more closely match existing state regulations.
Under the proposed rules, Green Bay Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin would open to hunting and fishing for the first time. Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming would permit deer and elk hunting, and new acres of land would open to big game hunting in St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge in Florida.
Mark Salvo, vice president of landscape conservation for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, said the push to expand fishing and hunting in refuges is not by itself alarming. But he warned the details need to be examined closely to ensure the rules don’t compromise other goals and values for the refuge system.
Salvo said he is particularly concerned about the proposal’s impact on 380 threatened and endangered species that depend on national refuge land.
“The agency has to consider how any public use might affect that habitat,” Salvo said.
Regulations continue to expand hunting opportunities for the sage grouse in some areas, Salvo added, questioning whether that is appropriate for a species whose numbers have declined in every Western state.
In 1997, Congress passed the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, which established six priorities for wildlife refuges. Those priorities include hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, photography, and environmental education and interpretation.
Salvo said he will be reviewing the proposed regulations closely to make sure expanded hunting and fishing does not detract from the other priorities.
Hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities contributed more than $156 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, published every five years.
Ed Carter, president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said state agencies represented by his group are “delighted” the Interior Department worked with states to expand hunting and fishing opportunities on public land.
“We need to get people outside to enjoy the lands and waters, and fish and wildlife resources, of our great nation,” Carter said in a statement. “This is an important step in that direction.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages 567 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts encompassing millions of acres of land. The refuge system is home to more than 8,000 animal and marine life species.
The agency will accept public comments on the proposed rules over the next 45 days and intends to finalize the proposed changes before the 2019-2020 hunting seasons.