SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — When pheasant hunters take to the fields of South Dakota this weekend to renew a treasured rite of autumn, they’ll have less land to do it on thanks to the federal government shutdown.
Some 150,000 acres in the national wildlife refuge system will be off-limits for the state’s annual public lands hunt. It’s a scenario being played out across the country, affecting millions of acres that are ordinarily available to hunters seeking antelope in Colorado, ducks in Montana or bears in Alaska.
In South Dakota, millions of acres leased or owned by the state will still be available. But the national wildlife refuge system sites offer some of the best cover for upland birds, said Mark Norton, hunting access coordinator for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.
“In the grand scheme of things, it won’t be a huge amount,” Norton said. “But a lot of the waterfowl production areas are in the prime pheasant land of South Dakota. It will be felt by sportsmen, that’s for sure.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said this week it was closing its public properties across the country due to the shutdown.
That presents a security risk, outdoors groups say, as just 350 Fish and Wildlife Service workers are protecting more than 150 million acres of wildlife refuges— an area nearly twice as large as the national park system.
Wildlife-related recreation is a big business in the U.S., with more than 90 million Americans spending more than $144 billion in 2011, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
In Minnesota, which celebrates its pheasant opener this weekend, the Fish and Wildlife Service has closed 13 national wildlife refuges, eight wetland management districts, one ecological services office and the Midwest regional office, totaling more than 489,000 acres.
More than a half-million residents and visitors hunt in Minnesota each year, contributing an estimated $725 million to the state’s economy, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Statewide, more than 80,000 hunters are expected to go after pheasants this year.
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Tim Patronski said the skeleton crew of federal wildlife officers won’t be able to cover up the numerous green-and-white waterfowl production area signs that state, “Open to public hunting.” Officers will talk to anyone they encounter, he said.
“Our primary role is to educate, just to get the word out,” Patronski said.
Steve Williams, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said public lands available for hunting already are too crowded, and the federal acres closure will further deter hunters from trying to find their spots. Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute, said most hunters want to hunt legally, and the confusion over what’s open and what’s closed will likely prompt some people to just stay home.
“I’m sure there’ll be some number that will say, ‘I don’t know where to go, where I’m allowed to go and therefore I’m not going to take a chance,'” said Williams. “And perhaps they won’t go at all.”
The shutdown comes just as most states’ primary hunting seasons get underway.
“For guides it’s like Macy’s at Christmas, you lose your income for the year,” said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, an advocacy group.
Tags to hunt bears at Alaska’s Kodiak Island National Wildlife Refuge are tough to get, and the closure is forcing eager hunters to alter their plans for hunts that should have kicked off Oct. 1, said Land Tawney, executive director of Missoula, Mont.-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
That hurts not only hunters, but the businesses they support, he said.
Tawney said he scouted an area of the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge for two weeks with hopes of duck hunting but had to take his shotgun to another part of Montana.
“It’s a duck haven, and this time of year it’s a great place to duck hunt,” he said.
In some parts of the country, hunters have waited 15 to 20 years to earn a tag to hunt big game such big horned elk or pronghorn antelope.
“Now they have to turn in their tags and wait another year,” said Gaspar Perricone, co-director of Bull Moose Sportsmen’s Alliance, a Colorado-based hunting group.
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