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Hunting Our National Wildlife Refuges
No place to hunt? Check out this nationwide system of opportunities
By Kevin Reese
Are you one of the many hunters looking for a place to hunt? If so, consider making a National Wildlife Refuges System (NWRS) property your next hotspot. NWRS land offers some of the best hunting in the country while also presenting pristine, awe-inspiring landscapes. Yet, these opportunities, for many, would seem to be a well-kept secret.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), a division of the Department of the Interior (DOI), has managed NWRS for more than 70 years and now controls 553 refuges and 38 wetland management districts spanning in excess of 150 million acres. According to FWS, one-third of that total acreage lies under public waterways while 85 to 90 million acres remain accessible for public hunting; in fact, NWRS suggests that at least one huntable property exists in each of the 50 states and many states have multiple properties open to hunting.
Though some areas are certainly better than others, hunting opportunities in the most popular refuges are often managed through the lottery process of distributing permits where hunters may elect to participate in a drawing to hunt a particular refuge; these opportunities are normally listed in your state's wildlife conservation agency's website and handbook along with detailed information on how to participate.
Numerous refuges also offer special events including youth hunts and special opportunities to chase the trophy of a lifetime. The Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, near Alabama, N.Y., offers an annual Young Waterfowler's Program that includes a waterfowl hunting seminar and special hunt; the clinic and hunt are free of charge. St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge in Franklin County, Fla., offers a lottery for a phenomenal big-game hunt; some 200 hunters have the opportunity to hunt Sambar deer and wild hogs on more than 12,000 acres of prime hunting real estate for $25. The Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, near Denia, Nev., offers a popular sage grouse hunt for 75 lucky drawing winners. Special opportunities continue to increase throughout NWRS and are easily found through online search engines or readily viewable within the NRWS website.
As for hunting pressure, many are surprised to learn there are only a reported 2.5 million hunters accessing NWRS lands annually. Part of this small number is due to lotteries regulating the number of hunters permitted in certain areas, and part of it simply a lack of education regarding the use of NWRS property. Though as a bloc hunters would be stronger with greater participation, the low numbers also present great opportunities to hunt lightly pressured properties.
Learning where to go only addresses half of the learning curve when considering the use of NWRS property for hunting. The other half is simply learning what is required of hunters to access the property. NWRS allows state hunting regulations to govern the fundamental hunting practices on these lands, and where the DOI and FWS mandate, federal regulations may be imposed in an effort to further regulate the lands in terms of protecting wildlife, refuge habitat and other critical resources. A great, user-friendly resource to consult is title 50 of the Code of Federal Regulations in part 32 (50 DFR part 32), where you can find specific regulations related to individual states.
If you still have questions pertaining to hunting, drawings, accessibility or regulations, contact the specific refuge in which you are interested in hunting, or visit the NWRS website, call the FWS hotline at 800-344-WILD (9453) or email FWS by clicking on this link.