|“There’s a deep emotion that people feel for that place,” [Bristow] said. “And hunting will hurt it.” - Putting venison, fowl and trout on the table is more important than your 'feelings.' Go somewhere else to have your tofu picnics.|
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Expanded hunting coming to R.I.?
Hunters are pleased but environmental and animal-rights groups are objecting to the plan, which would introduce or expand access to hunting at all five of the state’s national wildlife refuges.
MIDDLETOWN — About every other week, Dennis Bristow visits Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. Sometimes, he goes there as part of a crew of volunteers who maintain a network of trails that offers sweeping views of the Sakonnet River on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. At other times, he just likes to spend time appreciating the quiet beauty of the refuge.
“I’ve hiked all over New England, even gone to Mount Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua [in the Andes],” said Bristow, a 77-year-old Newport resident. “There’s nothing like Sachuest for bringing you inner peace and tranquility.”
But that peace may be threatened by a plan that would open much of Sachuest’s 242 acres to limited hunting for the first time in the refuge’s 50-year history. Under a proposal being considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunting would be introduced or expanded across all five of Rhode Island’s national wildlife refuges.
The proposal in Rhode Island is part of a much larger plan to expand hunting and fishing at 97 national wildlife refuges and nine national fish hatcheries covering 2.3 million acres in states across the country, from Washington to Texas to Maine.
When the Department of the Interior announced the plan in April, the agency described it as “the single largest expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities” in history by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“America’s hunters and anglers now have something significant to look forward to in the fall as we plan to open and expand hunting and fishing opportunities across more acreage nationwide than the entire state of Delaware,” Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt said when the plan was released at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
If adopted, it would be the third major expansion of hunting and fishing in national wildlife refuges by the Interior Department following efforts begun under Bernhardt’s predecessor, former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke. Since 2017, hunting and fishing access has been extended to a total of 1.7 million acres of refuge lands. The moves come amid a concerted push by the Trump administration to expand recreational opportunities on public lands, justified in part as a way of raising revenue through excise taxes on hunting, fishing and outdoors equipment.
The previous expansions had no effect on Rhode Island’s refuges. But even Charlie Vandemoer, project leader for the refuge complex in Rhode Island, acknowledged that the current proposal represents a significant change for the state’s refuges, which, along with Sachuest Point in Middletown, include Block Island, John H. Chafee in Narragansett and South Kingstown, Ninigret in Charlestown, and Trustom Pond in South Kingstown.
Vandemoer pointed to history and federal law to explain the recent efforts to expand hunting and fishing access. Hunting and fishing have been considered traditional uses at national wildlife refuges since the first ones were created in 1903. Under a key 1997 law that governs the national refuge system, the activities are allowed on a case-by-case basis when “determined to be compatible.”
Hunting is already allowed in the Rhode Island refuge system, but it’s extremely limited. White-tailed deer can be hunted on parts of the Block Island and Ninigret refuges, while dove and geese can be hunted at Trustom Pond. Fishing, meanwhile, is allowed at Sachuest Point, Block Island, Ninigret and Trustom Pond.
However, under the new proposal:
◘At Block Island, deer hunting would be expanded to all 133 acres of the refuge, and migratory bird hunting would be introduced at one location.
◘At Chafee, nearly the entire 563 acres would be opened to hunting for migratory birds, deer, turkey, coyote and fox. Fishing would also be allowed in parts of the refuge.
◘At Ninigret, nearly all of the 883 acres would be opened to hunting for deer, turkey, coyote and fox.
◘At Sachuest Point, 227 acres would be opened to supervised-only hunting of deer, coyote and fox for particular user groups that may include youths, veterans, hunters with disabilities and women hunters.
◘At Trustom Pond, archery hunting only would be allowed for deer, turkey, fox and coyote and hunting with firearms would be expanded to other waterfowl. Hunting would only be allowed from land, not on the pond.
The changes have been welcomed by national pro-hunting groups. Safari Club International argues that an expansion of access to the refuges makes sense, because residential development has restricted hunting to fewer areas in the state.
“Hunting opportunities on public lands are especially important near urban and densely populated areas like those near the refuges in Rhode Island and nearby Northeast states,” the group says.
But environmental and animal-rights groups have raised objections to the plan. The Center for Biological Diversity contends that Fish and Wildlife inadequately assessed the dangers of using lead ammunition, which is permitted in Rhode Island, or the effects of noise and other disturbances on protected birds and other animals.
The local opposition has been more intense. Bristow and a core group of about half a dozen others have come out against allowing any hunting at Sachuest, a popular spot for walkers, nature-lovers and bird-watchers who in recent years have crowded the refuge to catch a glimpse of a snowy owl, an infrequent visitor to Rhode Island.
One of the group’s members, Katherine Carbone, organized an online petition that collected more than 51,000 signatures of people from around the world, including 467 Rhode Islanders and more than 3,000 people from elsewhere in the Northeast, before the public comment period on the plan ended earlier this week.
The Middletown Town Council also announced that it “strongly opposes” expanding hunting to Sachuest, citing its relatively small size — it is the smallest of the national wildlife refuges in Rhode Island — and its popularity. With more than 325,000 visitors a year, it is the most visited of the refuges in the state. Additionally, 41% of respondents to a survey done by Ohio State University said they visit Sachuest in winter, which coincides with the hunting season.
The council also pointed to the proximity to the refuge of Second and Third beaches, which are heavily trafficked year-round, and described the possibility of hunters discharging firearms nearby as a potential threat to public safety.
Similar concerns have also been raised about opening to hunting the Chafee refuge, which straddles the Narrow River.
″... the use of firearms will endanger not only nearby homes, but also people as they participate in recreational activities available in the refuge, including walking, kayaking and boating in the area,” Richard Grant, president of the Narrow River Preservation Association, wrote in a letter to Fish and Wildlife.
Rhode Island’s congressional delegation referred to the opposition to the changes in Sachuest and Chafee, saying that an expansion of hunting “has the potential to be uniquely disruptive to the surrounding community and poses a risk to public safety.”
If the plan were approved, state hunting regulations, which require safety setbacks, would apply, even though the refuges are owned by the federal government. Discharges of firearms would be prohibited within 500 feet of a dwelling without written permission from a landowner, and archery hunting would be forbidden within 200 feet of a dwelling.
Vandemoer said that waterfowl hunting is allowed in areas adjacent to the Chafee refuge and that deer hunting was allowed on parts of the Chafee land before and, for a time, after it was purchased by the federal government.
In regard to Sachuest Point, Vandemoer said that hunting would be limited to three to five days every other year and that the refuge would be closed to other visitors on those days.
“We wanted to look at all the opportunities that might be available at all the refuges across the state,” he said. “We didn’t feel like a full-blown hunting season would be the way to go for Sachuest. We wanted to identify something that would fit in.”
Vandemoer and other refuge staff in Rhode Island are sifting through the hundreds of comments they received on the plan and considering revisions to the proposal. He described the comments as “substantive and meaningful” but said he couldn’t yet characterize how many were supportive of the changes and how many objected.
Previously scheduled public hearings on the plan were canceled because of the pandemic. The vetting process was extended twice but can’t be delayed any longer if changes are to go into effect for the 2020-21 hunting season, as planned. A final rule will be released in the Federal Register, probably by the end of July.
As for fears raised by opponents to the plan that hunting could drive other visitors away from the refuges, Vandemoer was circumspect.
“That’s a balance that we need to take into account in this whole thing,” he said.
Bristow, for one, hopes the balance tips against a widespread expansion of hunting. He declined to speak about the other refuges that he doesn’t know as well, but he’s convinced that hunting doesn’t belong in Sachuest.
“There’s a deep emotion that people feel for that place,” he said. “And hunting will hurt it.”
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