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Hunting in wildlife refuges that soared under Trump faces new restrictions

The government agreed to phase out ammo containing lead as part of a settlement signed Wednesday.

(CN) — A federal judge signed an order Wednesday to taper rules from the Trump years that expanded hunting and fishing in 147 national wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries.

“This win protects endangered wildlife on refuges that were specifically created to protect them,” Camila Cossío, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages 567 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts, encompassing millions of acres of land that at least 8,000 animal and marine species call home. Grizzly bears, ocelots, whooping cranes and jaguars are just a few of the species listed as endangered in the U.S. that are found on wildlife refuges.

Noting that nearly one-third of all endangered species live in these refuges, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit last year to challenge what was the largest-ever expansion of hunting and fishing throughout the National Wildlife Refuge System, executed under former President Donald Trump in 2020.

Cossio noted that expanded hunting and fishing in wildlife refuges would bring increased vehicle traffic, raising the chances of animals getting hurt or killed during run-ins with humans.

Trump had also revered an Obama-era ban against lead-containing ammunition on federal lands and waters, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed as part of settlement in this case to phase out lead ammunition and tackle at several refuges. 

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Montana signed off on the deal Wednesday.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service knows that using lead ammunition and tackle poisons wildlife and people," Cossio said. “I’m hopeful that the protections stemming from this lawsuit are just the beginning."

Separate from the litigation, the government is already planning to mandate the public use of lead-free ammunition and fishing tackle at Indiana’s Patoka National Wildlife Refuge, a home to endangered whooping cranes.

Lead ammunition and tackle can have implications even for wildlife that isn't shot with it, for example by poisoning a field or waterway. Any animal that feeds on an animal shot with lead-containing ammo could also be affected. 

“Phasing out the use of lead ammunition and tackle on refuges is a commonsense way to help wildlife that already face so many threats to their survival,” Cossío explained. “We’re going to keep doing everything we can to convince the Fish and Wildlife Service to adopt a nationwide phaseout of toxic lead. Only then can refuges truly be safe havens for wildlife.”

Fish and Wildlife agreed as part of the deal to phase out the use of lead in numerous national wildlife refuges on the East Coast. These refuges are the Blackwater, Eastern Neck and Patuxent refuges in Maryland; the Chincoteague and Wallops Island refuges in Virginia; the Erie refuge in Pennsylvania; the Great Thicket refuge in Massachusetts; and the Rachel Carson refuge in Maine.

Another change covered by the settlement is that Fish and Wildlife will now advise people bring bear spray if they enter grizzly bear territory while hunting black bears in Montana’s Swan River National Wildlife Refuge. The goal here is to reduce the risk of hunters shooting the endangered grizzly bears to defend themselves.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the settlement Wednesday.

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