H.R. 972 The Wildlife Refuge Conservation & Recreation for the Community Act
If you have ever been to Western Riverside County in Southern California, you might not believe that a 500,000 acre plan to support wildlife habitat and migration corridors could be possible in this rapidly developing area. You may also be surprised to learn that there is a plan to establish a new National Wildlife Refuge in the region that could add 150,000 acres of public land which one day could be open to hunting and fishing.
H.R. 972, the Wildlife Refuge Conservation & Recreation for the Community Act, a bill introduced by California Reps. Mark Takano and Ken Calvert, would do just that. Here is what you need to know about H.R. 972 and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers continued efforts to expand National Wildlife Refuges in California and across the country.
The Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP) was established in 2004 to consider the needs of critically endangered species in one of the fastest growing regions in California. Administered by the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority (RCA) and managed by the Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC), the plan funds land acquisition, habitat management and species monitoring. As the region grows and infrastructure expands, the MSHCP provides a framework to ensure that habitat conservation and wildlife migration corridors are considered.
The MSHCP area spans approximately 500,000 acres, including approximately 350,000 acres of public land in the Cleveland and San Bernardino National Forests plus scattered Bureau of Land Management parcels that will go into the preserve. These public lands are essentially open to hunting and fishing with a variety of lakes, rivers and wetland areas.
Under the MSHCP, the preserve's remaining 150,000 acres are to be acquired one-third by the state and federal governments, and two-thirds from private landowners through the RCA. While the federal and California governments are required to acquire one-third of the necessary land for this wildlife preserve, the federal government has not yet met their goal. That's where H.R. 972 comes in. The bill will allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to convert approximately 150,000 acres to public land in the form of the Western Riverside County Wildlife Refuge. As of June 2021, the RCA had already acquired 63,000 acres leaving approximately 87,000 to go.
According to David Knudsen, the Manager of Legislative Affairs at the RCTC, the hunting and fishing access on the roughly 350,000 acres of public lands within the MSHCP will not change if H.R. 972 is passed and the wildlife refuge is established. This is good news for hunters and anglers in the state, as the 150,000 acres of land to be included in the new wildlife refuge could be open to hunting and fishing if the refuge approves. The refuge would follow the MSHCP’s intent to protect and conserve 146 different plant and animal species, and as long as hunting does not interfere with those goals, it should be allowed.
Since the inception of the first wildlife refuge in Florida’s central Atlantic coast in 1903, the system has been instrumental in conserving lands for fish and wildlife while providing public access for hunters and anglers at the same time. Nearly a hundred years after the first refuge was created, the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act established guiding principles for the areas and identified six refuge-compatible recreational uses: hunting, fishing, wildlife watching, photography, environmental education and interpretation. This was an attempt to reform the system and support fish and wildlife that were being adversely impacted by mining, off-road vehicles, airboating, waterskiing and military aviation exercises. It also codified the importance of hunting and fishing on wildlife refuges and in the congressional record it was reaffirmed that:
“It is the policy of the United States that where a proposed wildlife-dependent use is determined to be compatible on an individual refuge, the activity should be facilitated," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services
As of 2020, 427 National Wildlife Refuge system units are open to public hunting and 376 are open to fishing. BHA, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited have joined forces on an initiative to support the National Wildlife Refuge System and identify opportunities to expand hunting and fishing access. We detailed initial findings in the following report and are working across the west to expand refuges and increase hunting and angling opportunities. In the report we identified the following tenets to guide refuge management and expansions:
- Proposals for new or expanded national wildlife refuges should be developed through a public process–one that includes hunters and anglers, state fish and wildlife agencies, agricultural producers, as well as appropriate State, Tribal, and local governments, and the general public.
- For refuges created out of public lands administered by a separate land management agency, state fish and wildlife agencies should retain authority over the management of fish and wildlife populations to the maximum extent allowed by law.
- The input of hunters and anglers should inform all applicable management plans for national wildlife refuges.
- Protection of important fish and wildlife habitat should be the highest priority of any refuge.
- Proposals for new or expanded national wildlife refuges will require support from the public, including hunters and anglers.
- Hunting and fishing opportunities should be prioritized as “wildlife-dependent recreational uses” to the maximum extent, and public access should be enhanced or expanded where compatible with the objectives of any new or existing refuge to ensure no net loss of hunting and fishing opportunities across the refuge system.
- Reasonable public access should be established or retained to enable continued hunting, fishing, and other recreational opportunities, as compatible with refuge objectives.
- Funding should be dedicated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to secure the resources, staffing, and expertise required to effectively manage the refuge system, including any new or expanded refuge units.
- New or expanded refuge units should bolster ecosystem health by conserving year-round, seasonal, and migratory habitats for both game and nongame species, including “species of greatest conservation need” that have been identified by state fish and wildlife agencies.
- Consistent with National Wildlife Refuge System policies, cooperative agriculture such as haying and grazing on refuge lands should continue to the extent that it meets specific wildlife or habitat management goals and objectives.
- New or expanded refuges should prioritize opportunities to add unique fish, wildlife, or ecological values and hunting and angling opportunities that are underrepresented in the refuge system.
- To the maximum extent practicable and consistent with refuge purposes, regulations governing hunting and fishing on new or expanded refuges should remain consistent with state regulations and limit additional restrictions on hunting and fishing opportunities.
H.R. 972 is a great opportunity to support conservation goals, endangered species and wild game on public lands. BHA will continue to advocate for National Wildlife Refuges and incorporating more public access and hunting and angling opportunities where they are compatible with refuge objectives. We applaud Representatives Takano & Calvert for their bipartisan leadership on this issue as well as the House Natural Resources Committee for approving this legislation. To learn more or to get involved with the Chapter's efforts please send us an email.