Southern Colorado’s Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge plans to open sections of land along the Rio Grande River to fishing and expand the allowed acreage for hunting on its protected lands.
It is one of more than 100 wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries to do so as part of a sweeping plan under President Donald Trump’s administration to give Americans more recreational access to public lands.
Jayson O’Neil, the director of a nonpartisan government watchdog group called the Western Values Project, said the timing of the announcement earlier this month was “tone deaf” in light of the ongoing global public health crisis.
O’Neil said that this announcement “by no means could ever make up for the hunting opportunities and wildlife lost as a result of Trump’s deregulatory agenda decimating our public lands.”
But opening recreational access to public lands has been a priority of Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt since he took office last year.
“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,” Bernhardt said in a statement.
But the American people will most likely be dealing with the reality of the pandemic over the next couple of years, until vaccinations for COVID-19 are widely available.
Brien Webster, a longtime hunter in Grand Junction and program manager for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers in Colorado, said that hunters and fishers are the original social distancers. They aren’t mingling at the trailhead, they are prepping their gear and trying to stay as far away from each other as possible. These recreational activities are a way for people to get outdoors during an age of self-isolation.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is supportive of the opportunity for fishing and expanded hunting access at Alamosa’s refuge, as well as the Trump administration’s national push for recreational access on public lands, he said.
“The proposed rule would do a lot to support our outdoor economy,” Webster said. And there is a long history in the United States of hunting and fishing providing funding for conservation refuges like Alamosa.
Suzanne Beauchaine, project director of the Alamosa refuge, said a majority of the land was purchased with duck stamps. Waterfowl hunters are required to purchase them, and 98% of the purchase price goes to protecting wetland habitat and purchasing conservation easements.
“There is a long tradition of hunting on the refuge,” Beauchaine said. But this tradition has also contributed to conservation measures on the refuge.
Recently, large herds of elk have damaged willow habitats, so the refuge has allowed elk hunting to balance the population. Before they do so, project leaders on the refuge conduct impact studies to ensure fishing and expanded hunting would not be detrimental to the wildlife.
Peter Nelson, director of federal lands at the conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife, said hunting and fishing is not bad for the Alamosa wildlife refuge as long as it is properly managed.
“The fact of the matter is there is a right way to do this,” Nelson said, as long as the refuge keeps the objective of conservation first and foremost in mind.
There is a concern that increasing the number and distribution of hunters and anglers on the refuge could disturb sensitive habitats and undermine protection for endangered species, such as the southwestern willow flycatcher, a migratory songbird.
Breaking or destroying too much of the dense brush they use for nesting along the river could hinder their breeding and abundance in the area.
Beauchaine said the refuge plans to use signs and visuals like a break in fencing to indicate sections where anglers should and shouldn’t fish to reduce foot traffic on vital nesting habitat for migratory birds. Fishing trails will also be closed on a seasonal basis to allow the southwestern willow flycatcher to nest undisturbed.
“The initial mission of the refuge is to protect migratory waterfowl,” Beauchaine said. “Our goals haven’t changed.”
Webster of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said there is an understanding among hunters and fishers in Southern Colorado that “the future depends on our ethical stewardship.”
“People who didn’t grow up hunting don’t see that conservation is at the forefront of our minds when we go out,” Webster said.
People have 60 days to comment on the national proposal and until April 30 to comment on the Alamosa proposal.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.