National Waterfowl Production Areas to Reopen in 10 States

Pressure from prairie pothole states spearheaded by North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple has forced the United States Fish & Wildlife Service to reopen 26,000 waterfowl production areas, encompassing nearly 3 million acres across 10 states, to public access in time for pheasant hunting seasons.

“It has been determined that allowing public access to Waterfowl Production Areas will not incur further government expenditure or obligation and is allowable under a government shutdown," the FWS stated in an Oct. 11 press release.

While WPAs are reopened "effective immediately," the FWS emphasized that the nation's 561 "national wildlife refuges would remain closed." The distinction is expected to engender confusion because nearly all WPAs are located within the 367 national wildlife refuges that permit hunting.{C}

With WPAs on NWRs open to hunting, but the NWRs closed to public access, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said the confusion underscores the absurdity of denying the public access to the public’s land. In Oct. 11 letters to FWS Director Dan Ashe and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, Hastings demanded they cease "arbitrarily and inconsistently barricading open spaces" they have no authority to “close.”

"Activities such as hunting and fishing, which are managed by the states, ranching and other recreational uses are being blocked from these sites, many of which are usually unfenced and intermittently staffed or patrolled by Interior or Forest Service personnel," Hastings states in his letters. "The closure of these wildlife refuges and National Forest lands further illustrates the inconsistent and arbitrary actions of the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service during the government shutdown."

In a more conciliatory note, Pheasants Forever applauded the FWS for "listening to the voices of sportsmen and women" in reopening WPAs.

"This decision comes on the eve of opening day of pheasant hunting seasons in Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota in which WPAs are important public hunting areas," said Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever Vice President of Government Affairs.

WPAs, lands set aside for waterfowl production, are primarily purchased by federal Duck Stamp revenues purchased by waterfowl hunters.

According to Pheasants Forever, there are more than 26,000 WPAs nationwide (although the National Wildlife Refuge Association says there are 36,000) and they average 223 acres in size. Nearly 95 percent of WPAs are in the prairie pothole areas of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.

As Ashe was announcing the reopening of WPAs on Oct. 11, North Dakota was within minutes of filing a complaint in federal court demanding the agency reopen more than 288,000 acres on 1,100 WPAs.

In the complaint, Gov. Jack Dalrymple and State Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the WPA closures are unwarranted because the FWS does not maintain full-time staff on WPA lands and, therefore, it would cost nothing to keep them open.

The WPA closures were "clearly contrary to law, which assures these areas are to be open to hunters and anglers," Stenehjem told the Associated Press. "I am delighted that Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to end the confusion, and to allow our sportsmen to enjoy a successful hunting season."

The announcement came in time to open more than 200,000 acres of WPA lands to an estimated 80,000 hunters expected to hit the fields in Minnesota on the Oct. 12 pheasant season opener.

The decision reopens more than 150,000 acres of WPA lands in South Dakota.” These public lands are a valuable asset to our citizens, and are of particular importance during our fall hunting seasons," South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said.

In addition to North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana, WPAs are also reopened in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska, Idaho, and Maine.