Trump administration opened 2.3 million acres of protected habitat to hunting, but wildfires have forced closure of more than 10 times as much
WASHINGTON D.C.––Staunch support for U.S. President Donald Trump among gun-owning households might be said to have backfired on hunters in the wildfire-stricken West Coast and Rocky Mountain states.
Courting hunter votes to re-elect Trump, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on August 18, 2020 either opened or expanded hunting and fishing seasons on 147 National Wildlife Refuges.
“The Trump administration has now made an additional 2.3 million acres accessible to new hunting and fishing opportunities,” trumpeted Bernhardt.
Of the 568 National Wildlife Refuges, 430––76%––are now open to hunting and 360 are open to fishing.
Hunters heavily favor Trump
Polls indicate that about 63% of gun-owning households already favored Trump. But many gun owners who planned to go hunting this fall, ahead of Election Day, November 3, 2020, may find that habitat closures due to wildfire have figuratively cooked their goose.
Hunters will be able to hunt in many National Wildlife Refuges that were formerly off limits. But those refuges offer only a fraction of the habitat that has traditionally been open to hunters, but is now closed or restricted because of fire.
Trump administration dismissal of climate changes, including global warming and increasingly severe droughts in the western U.S., has contributed to the closure of more than 20 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land to hunting in California alone in the month since the Bernhardt announcement.
About 3.2 million acres have already burned in California during the 2020 fire season, razing more than 4,200 structures, killing at least 25 people.
The U.S. Forest Service land closures to hunting in California alone involve nearly 10 times more habitat than Bernhardt opened to hunters, and the Forest Service is just one of many federal and state agencies that are reluctantly closing or restricting hunting access.
Fires are mixed blessing for wildlife
California, moreover, is only one of the five most severely afflicted states. Together, more than five million acres of forest and grassland have burned in California, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, most of it land which would have been hunted this fall.
The closures of land to hunters are scarcely good news for wildlife––not in the near future. Wildfires have cost hundreds of thousands of mule deer, tens of thousands of elk, thousands of bear, and millions of birds and smaller mammals their home range habitat.
Some species such as sage grouse, already struggling, have been pushed close to regional extirpation.
In the long run, wildfires tend to favor grazing and browsing species, as grass and low shrubs succeed tall trees killed by fire in the early post-fire recovery of habitat.
Elk and mule deer, in particular, prosper after wildfires, in turn becoming prey for more abundant wolves and pumas––and hunters.
Two record wildfire seasons in three years
But none of this will happen before the 2020 national election.
The burning question between now and the election is whether U.S. voters will fire Trump, after four years of catastrophic reversals of progress on behalf of wildlife and habitat, including two record wildfire seasons in the past three years.
Significant losses of hunting access to public lands across the western states began on September 2, 2020, when Colorado Parks & Wildlife closed five game management units due to the Cameron Peak Fire, admitting in a media release that the fire had “significantly impacted elk, deer, moose, black bear and bighorn sheep hunting areas.”
“Little to no access”
Colorado Parks & Wildlife regional manager Jason Surface said from Fort Collins that the fire would “have a dramatic impact on the early season archery and muzzle loader hunting seasons.”
Surface predicted that the fire would “disperse wildlife,” and that most species would “move to the next best habitat available,” but added that where this might be could prove “difficult to predict.”
Said Surface, “It’s not so much the fire, but there is little to no access to get to about 75% or more of most of these units” where the animals might go.
A week later, on September 9, 2020, the U.S. Forest Service temporarily closed all national forests in California due to what it termed “unprecedented and historic fire conditions.”
“Hunting & camping are prohibited”
Three days after that, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife closed 49 state wildlife areas to the public “due to the high danger that wildfires across the state pose to visitors,” said a media release.
“We know that hunting opportunities will be impacted throughout the state, but no hunting opportunity is worth a human life,” said California Department of Fish & Wildlife deputy director and law enforcement division chief David Bess.
The Bureau of Land Management on September 11, 2020 closed to the public all BLM-administered land within the Northwest Oregon District east of Interstate 5.
“Members of the public may not enter closed areas, and all uses — including hunting and dispersed camping — are prohibited,” the Bureau of Land Management announced.
Oregon “does not close hunting seasons due to fire”
The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife “does not close hunting seasons due to elevated fire danger, access or use restrictions, or firefighting activities,” the departmental web site affirmed on September 14, 2020.
“Currently, all ODFW-owned wildlife areas remain open to hunting,” the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife said, but mentioned that “Several national and state forests on the west side of the Cascades [mountain range] have closed to public access, including the Mt. Hood, Willamette and Siuslaw national forests and Clatsop and Tillamook state forests.”
The Washington State Department of Natural Resources closed all of the lands under its jurisdiction east of the Cascades to recreation, mostly hunting at this time of year, through September 17, 2020, and said staff would consider further extending the closure depending on progress in containing wildfires.
“Special restrictions are in effect”
“With no lightning this week or in the forecast for the next few days,” the Washington State Department of Natural Resources mentioned, “the overwhelming majority of wildfires DNR is responding to are presumed to be human-caused. The agency has responded to more than 100 fires caused by recreation already this year.”
Four hunting units were closed within the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona, with further closures anticipated, as more than 550 firefighters fought three simultaneous blazes.
“Persons engaged in legal hunting activity are allowed to discharge a firearm while taking wildlife,” said the Payson Roundup newspaper, but warned that “Special restrictions for off-road motor vehicle use are in effect, which may affect big game retrieval.”