Federal Public Land Management Reports

Congressional Research Service
Report for Congress

National Wildlife Refuges: Places to Hunt?

Jennifer A. Heck

Graduate Student Intern
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division

July 28, 1992

92-597 ENR


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) manages the 717 units in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The system includes 500 national wildlife refuges, 166 waterfowl production areas, and 51 wildlife coordination areas. According to FWS, the refuges (which make up the vast majority of the system) have been established generally to preserve natural ecosystems and the diversity of fauna and flora on refuge lands. Some refuges have been established specifically to furnish habitat for a single (often endangered) species. Since 1924, hunting has been allowed, and in some cases encouraged, on certain refuges. FWS views hunting (and fishing) as effective resource management tools necessary to control populations and maintain proper ecosystem balance. Many animal welfare activists and some conservationists, however, consider it an anomaly that hunting is allowed on lands set aside to protect and enhance wildlife. This report provides a brief history of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) and discusses the compatibility of hunting with other public uses of refuge lands.


The NWRS currently consists of over 90 million acres, including land in 50 States, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa. Of these acres, 76 million are in Alaska, where some refuges such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge exceed a total of 19 million acres. At the other extreme, the Mille Lacs NWR in Minnesota measures less than one acre. Refuge lands cover an extensive variety of ecosystems and are managed by FWS according to guidelines set in its official Refuge Manual, which describes the overall purpose of the NWRS as: "to provide, preserve, restore, and manage a national network of lands and waters sufficient in size, diversity, and location to meet society's need for areas where the widest possible spectrum of benefits associated with wildlife and wildlands is enhanced and made available."' (For more information on management of Federal lands, see CRS Report 90-239 ENR, "The Major Federal Land Management Agencies: Management of Our Nation's Lands and Resources.")

Many refuges are located along major waterfowl migration routes. Private organizations with specific wildlife conservation interests, especially those interested in migratory waterfowl, were responsible for donating lands to form the earliest refuges. The first national wildlife refuge (NWR), Pelican Island NWR in Florida, was created in 1903 by the Executive order of Theodore Roosevelt. In recent years, other methods have been used to establish wildlife refuges, including acquisition funded by the Migratory Bird Conservation Account or the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and congressional authorization.

The opportunity to visit vast, undisturbed natural areas attracts large numbers of people to NWRs, and questions are being raised concerning the effect of increased public visitation on the ability of refuge lands to protect and enhance wildlife and wildlife habitat. These concerns distinguish between consumptive and non-consumptive uses of refuge lands. Consumptive uses include activities that "consume" some component of the ecosystem, such as hunting, fishing, and trapping. In contrast, common examples of non-consumptive uses include hiking, bird-watching, wildlife observation, and picnicking.

A similar distinction has evolved between two traditional views of wildlife conservation. Those with one view consider a population of a species to be the unit of conservation, while others consider each individual in a population to be the unit of conservation. The first group is concerned with maintaining a healthy population over time so that it may be of greater use to future generations, while the second group does not view wildlife as something to be "used." When a species is rare and each individual is highly valued and protected, those holding both views work well together, but when a species is common, they often clash.


FWS has adopted a decentralized approach to refuge management, delegating significant responsibility for day-to-day decisions and management activities to individual refuge managers. Refuge managers report to refuge supervisors located in one of seven FWS regional offices. Overall direction for managing the NWRS is provided by the refuge division at FWS headquarters. This division has developed four goals for the system: (1) preserve, restore, and enhance in their natural ecosystems all species of animals and plants that are endangered or threatened with becoming endangered; (2) perpetuate the migratory bird resource; (3) preserve a natural diversity and abundance of fauna and flora on refuge lands; and (4) provide an understanding and appreciation of fish and wildlife ecology and humans' role in their environment while providing refuge visitors with high-quality, safe, wholesome, and enjoyable recreational experiences oriented toward wildlife, to the extent these activities are compatible with the purposes for which the refuge was established. 2

The legislation or executive order creating a new unit of the NWRS almost always identifies a primary purpose. This purpose may be targeted at preserving a single endangered species, or call for more general preservation of, for example, waterfowl habitat. It is up to the refuge manager, based on a site-specific biological evaluation, to decide whether or not "secondary" uses of a refuge, such as hiking and hunting, are compatible with this primary purpose. According to its Refuge Manual, FWS defines a compatible use as one that will not materially interfere with or detract from the purposes for which the refuge was established. If the compatibility assessment shows that sufficient numbers of animals exist, and biological studies show that controlled hunting will not disrupt the balance between resident species and their habitat, the refuge manager may decide to initiate the paperwork to open the refuge to hunting. This preliminary step can, however, be overturned by the appropriate FWS regional office.


Hunting was first allowed in 1924, when Congress established the Upper Mississippi River Wild Life and Fish Refuge on the condition that hunting (a traditional activity on the land in question) be permitted there. Ten years later, J. N. "Ding' Darling, who served as director of the Biological Survey, introduced the duck stamp as a way to increase funding for acquisition of refuge lands. Under the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act of 1934 (16 U.S.C. 718), hunters were required to purchase a duck stamp for $1 in order to hunt migratory waterfowl, whether on Federal or non-Federal lands.

For over 20 years, duck stamp revenues were used largely for refuge operation and maintenance, but in 1958, the law was amended to require that these monies be used only for land acquisition. Hunting was allowed on only a few refuges until 1949, when FWS, under pressure from hunters claiming that the fee entitled them to expanded hunting rights on acquired lands, proposed increasing the price of a duck stamp to $2 in exchange for opening up to a quarter of the acreage on each refuge to hunting. FWS later raised the price of a stamp to $8 and agreed to open as much as 40 percent of waterfowl refuge lands to hunting. Typically, the use of duck stamp revenues to fund acquisition of refuge lands leads to the expectation that hunting will be allowed on some part of the refuge, subject to the review process described below. If FWS uses such revenues to create a waterfowl production area, then this area is, by definition, open to hunting.

FWS views hunting on refuges as both a cost-effective method of population management and a legitimate form of recreation. An overabundance of deer and other grazing animals has resulted in overgrazing and habitat degradation on some refuge lands due in large part to a decrease in the number of natural predators. FWS officials claim that hunting is necessary in some cases to prevent starvation of animals. Critics charge, however, that this claim by FWS may be disingenuous because the agency sometimes promotes conditions leading to high populations of game species. Biological studies conducted prior to the opening of a refuge to hunting are updated regularly to assess the continued suitability of hunting given any changes in refuge conditions.

Hunting is allowed only at the end of a lengthy review process. A refuge manager must complete several steps before opening a refuge to hunting: (1) prepare a hunting plan and environmental assessment; (2) publish a proposed and a final rule in the Federal Register; (3) consult with the FWS Office of Endangered Species as to whether any listed species would be adversely affected; and (4) obtain the approval of the State in which the refuge is located.

State wildlife law is superior to that of the Federal Government, unless Federal law explicitly supercedes it. Once a refuge manager opens a refuge to hunting of resident game, he or she has the authority to set hunting regulations that are more restrictive than the State's based on the managerial needs of the refuge. It is FWS policy, however, to attempt to conform refuge hunting regulations with those of the State. For hunting of migratory birds, FWS establishes a framework designating the number of days hunting is to be allowed and bag limits for various species. States must abide by these bag limits, and cannot exceed the total number of hunting days given in the FWS framework. States can, however, decide which days during the season will be open to hunting. Enforcement of refuge hunting regulations is often a joint venture requiring cooperation between State game agencies and FWS game wardens.

Those who hunt on refuges must have a state hunting license, and waterfowl hunters must also have a duck stamp. Separate fees are not charged for hunting within refuge boundaries, but certain refuges may require hunters to possess special permits or hunter education certificates.

By 1982, over half of all refuges were open to some form of public hunting. In 1989, 86.2 million acres out of a total of 90.4 million acres of refuge land were open to hunting; 77.9 million of these were in Alaska, leaving 8.3 million acres out of 12.5 million acres of refuge lands in the contiguous 48 States open to hunting. Hunting is allowed in both Mason Neck NWR in Virginia and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, for example, but is not allowed in many smaller refuges, such as those in Hawaii, designed to protect unique bird species. It is important to note that a refuge described as "open to hunting' does not necessarily mean that hunting is permitted across the entire refuge. Okefenokee NWR in Georgia, for example, allows hunting on a very small fraction of its total acreage for only a short time each year. Some refuges, such as Chincoteague NWR in Virginia, sponsor special hunts for handicapped hunters.


In response to growing public use of refuge lands, Congress enacted the Refuge Recreation Act (16 U.S.C. 469k; P.L. 87-714) in 1962. This Act requires that all recreational uses of a refuge be compatible with the primary purpose(s) for which the refuge was established. All hunting is not considered to be recreational; in some cases, it is considered a resource-management tool. Rather than providing a definition of "compatibility" in the legislation, Congress has left this to the discretion of refuge managers. The Act also requires the Secretary of the Interior to make sure sufficient funds exist to manage recreational activities before they are allowed on a refuge. Appropriations for refuge operations and maintenance averaged $140 million for FY90-92.

The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 as amended (16 U.S.C. 668dd; P.L. 89-669) combined the various fish and wildlife lands administered by the Secretary of the Interior to create the National Wildlife Refuge System as it is known today, under the management authority of FWS. This act also expanded application of the compatibility clause from recreational uses in general to all "secondary" uses. Secondary uses are considered to be those public, economic, or military uses for which FWS is required to determine compatibility before allowing them on refuge lands.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 has been instrumental in adding lands to the NWRS based on the presence of endangered or threatened species on such lands. (For more information on application of the ESA to refuge lands, see CRS Issue Brief 91086, "Endangered Species Act Issues.")

Current Legislative Options

Outraged over the increasing popularity of hunting on wildlife refuges, more than 80 animal protection and environmental groups formed the Refuge Wildlife Reform Coalition. The group's purpose is to promote legislation that would prohibit hunting and trapping on NWRs. Animal rights activists argue that refuge lands make up only 5 percent of all huntable lands in the United States, and that only 3 percent of all hunters hunt on NWRs, so to restrict hunting on refuges would not severely limit the sport. It should be noted, however, that hunters may benefit indirectly from refuge lands in that the game available on other huntable lands do not recognize boundaries and may have bred or fed on refuge lands. According to FWS, hunting on refuge lands may help to provide a habitat capable of sustaining such breeding and feeding behaviors by maintaining a healthy number of animals on these lands.

Efforts by the Refuge Wildlife Reform Coalition and the Humane Society helped lead to the introduction of legislation in 1987 aimed at eliminating hunting and trapping on all wildlife refuges. The Refuge Wildlife Protection Act was first introduced during the 100th Congress as H.R. 2724 by Representative Bill Green (NY). This bill would have amended the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act to require the Secretary of the Interior to limit killing of wildlife 4 in any area of the NWRS, permitting it only if evidence shows that such killing is necessary for public health and safety purposes, or health and habitat of wildlife species in the area) and that non-lethal alternatives are not available.

The bill was referred to the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee's Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation and the Environment. Following receipt of unfavorable executive comment on the legislation from Interior, Committee Chairman Studds, recognizing that Congress had never defined "compatible" refuge uses, called upon the General Accounting Office (GAO) to conduct a study evaluating whether or not secondary uses were compatible with the primary management purposes of wildlife refuges.

The resulting GAO report, titled "National Wildlife Refuges: Continuing Problems With Incompatible Uses Call for Bold Action," (GAO/RCED-89-196) determined that many secondary uses, including hunting and trapping, were interfering with proper refuge management. Some members of the Wildlife Refuge Reform Coalition, however, argue that the GAO study underestimated the extent of these secondary use activities.

Representative Green reintroduced the Refuge Wildlife Protection Act in the 101st Congress as H.R. 1693, and again in the 102d Congress as H.R. 330. H.R. 330 currently has 67 cosponsors. Executive comment was requested from the Department of the Interior on February 6, 1991. To date, no such comment has been provided.

Meanwhile, several bills have been introduced in the 102d Congress that would in some way amend the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act. H.R. 330, however, is the only bill being considered that would prohibit hunting and trapping on NWRs. In opposition, Representative Williams (MT) introduced H.Res. 218, which would "affirm the tradition of hunting" on NWRs. No action, however, has been taken on these proposals.


1. U.S. FWS, 2 Refuge Manual, section 1.3. Cited in: Drabelle, Dennis and Nathaniel P. Reed, The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Westview Press, 1984, p.17.

2. Drabelle and Reed, p. 17.

3. Hunters complain that it is often difficult to access public lands known to be filled with game because such lands are surrounded by private property. For more information on restricted access to public lands due to their location with respect to private lands, refer to CRS Report 86-650 ENR.

4. The bill defines "wildlife species" as any wild vertebrate species except fish.

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