If you’re having trouble finding a place to hunt or fish or if your favorite public spot has gotten a little too crowded in recent years, the latest news from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) could be a boon—depending on where you live. On Thursday, the agency announced new hunting and fishing opportunities at 18 national wildlife refuges on approximately 38,000 acres nationwide.
“We are committed to ensuring Americans of all backgrounds have access to hunting and fishing and other recreational activities on the lands and waters of the National Wildlife Refuge System,” USFWS Director Martha Williams said in a press release. “These regulations increase public access opportunities, better align the Service with state regulations and help to promote healthy wildlife habitats while boosting local recreation economies.”
It must be said, however, that on a nationwide scale, 38,000 acres is a modest number. It’s less than the original 54,000 acres proposed back in July 2022. And it’s a little more than a drop in the bucket compared to the increased opportunities on 2.1 million acres on 88 refuges announced by the Biden administration in 2021, and the 2.4 million acre increase across 147 refuges announced by the Trump administration in 2020.
Still, any increase in public hunting and fishing access will be welcome news to many, and if you live near one of these newly opened areas, it could make a real difference in your outdoor prospects. States affected include California, Indiana, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, with new opportunities to hunt waterfowl, upland birds, small game, coyotes, black bears, mule deer, whitetails, and more. For a complete list of the refuges and specific opportunities at each, see the Final Rule here.
The announcement has not been uniformly praised by sportsman’s groups. The National Shooting Sports Foundation immediately denounced the Final Rule, calling it a “bait and switch” because the expansions come with the caveat that future use of lead ammo on these areas will be phased out or is at least up for evaluation.
“The Service remains concerned that lead ammunition and fishing tackle have negative impacts on both human health and wildlife and will continue to evaluate their future use on Service lands and waters through a transparent public process,” the press release reads, noting that the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge will require non-lead ammunition and tackle by fall 2026, and that nine others “have begun to analyze phasing out lead ammunition and tackle and plan to propose the regulatory requirement for using non-lead ammunition by fall 2026 in the 2023-2024 annual rule.”
The National Wildlife Refuge System is comprised of 568 individual refuges and 38 wetland management districts. Thursday’s announcement brings the number of units with public hunting access up to 436 and the number where fishing is allowed to 378. Under the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, the Service prioritizes hunting and fishing, as well as wildlife photography, environmental education, and wildlife observation and interpretation.
Meanwhile, some of the opportunities on the newly opened lands, like dove season and archery mule deer, are already in full swing, so now’s the time to study the list if you want to take advantage.