NARRAGANSETT/SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is scaling back a recent pitch to permit hunting and fishing in the Chafee Wildlife Refuge after extensive public opposition to the proposal. The federal agency presented the changes earlier this week in finalized plans for the state’s National Wildlife Refuges (NWR), noting it has received 1,641 comments and two petitions from the public on the topic.
“After reviewing the public comments, we have changed some things from the draft plan, and some things stayed the same,” said FWS in a statement. “What has not changed is our commitment to provide a safe opportunity to enjoy the national wildlife refuges in Rhode Island, your national wildlife refuges. Whether it is an existing or new hunting or fishing venture, the Service will monitor these activities and adjust as necessary.”
At Chafee, FWS has dropped the proposed construction of a parking lot off Crest Avenue in South Kingstown, which drew criticism from surrounding residents who said such a means of access would disturb the quality of life of the traditionally quiet neighborhood. Additionally, FWS has eliminated hunting opportunities proposed for the “Mumford Unit” – the stretch of the refuge located near the Narragansett Elementary School and a portion of the William C. O’Neill Bike Path, based on concerns around public safety. Lastly, as part of the agency’s final plans, deer hunting on stretches of the refuge located in Narragansett has been limited to archery only. FWS’ original proposal had permitted deer hunting by firearm in these areas.
“We are greatly relieved, of course,” said Barbara Holtzman, a resident of Wakefield who helped organize grassroots opposition to the proposal. “The idea of building a parking lot for hunters in the middle of a four dead-end residential street neighborhood was ludicrous and dangerous, as was the plan to offer hunting near an elementary school and bike path in the Mumford area of Narragansett.”
“The unified efforts of the residents of Tower Hill Heights were instrumental in FWS removing the proposal for the parking lot off of Crest Avenue,” said Nancy Shanahan, a resident of the street. “This is great news and I am so very thankful for my neighbors. I was pleased to see that Mumford Unit was removed from the hunt plan due to its close proximity to both the bike path and Narragansett Elementary School.”
While some aspects of the original proposal have been cut or altered, many remain intact. Approximately 547 acres of the refuge will begin to be opened to the hunting of migratory birds (geese, ducks, coot and mergansers), white-tailed deer, wild turkey, coyote and fox in 2020, with some season and weapon restrictions. State safety regulations will also apply, and setback limits have been introduced for each area newly opened to hunting. Finally, saltwater fishing will be allowed along 1,600 feet of shoreline on the north bank of the Narrow River near Sprague Bridge in accordance with state fishing regulations.
Safety regulations include the following: all hunters must have a valid state hunting license, which requires a hunter education course; all archery hunters for deer, turkey and coyote must have a state archery proficiency certification; no discharge of firearms within 500 feet of a dwelling and no discharge from or across a road; no discharge of archery equipment within 200 feet of a dwelling, aerial maps of hunt unit boundaries will be provided to hunters, the public will be alerted to annual hunting seasons with news release and online/social media announcements and the new hunting and fishing program will be monitored and adjustments made as deemed necessary.
When originally proposed earlier this year, the idea for new hunting opportunities at Chafee Wildlife Refuge was met with opposition not only from residents and members of the public, but also local town council members, state senators, a conservation group overseeing Narrow River and the Rhode Island Congressional delegation, which voiced its concern in a letter to FWS.
When asked why the decision to move forward with the proposal despite the wealth of feedback in opposition to it, Karrie Schwaab of the Rhode Island NWR Complex said it comes down to how different people enjoy the federal land.
“We understand and respect the opposing viewpoint,” she said. “The legislation which guides how national wildlife refuges across the country are managed requires us to consider allowing wildlife observation, hunting, fishing, photography, environmental education and interpretation, and further directs us to promote all of these activities when compatible with refuge purposes. Not one of these recreational uses have a priority over another – they are simply different ways people choose to enjoy the refuges and to engage themselves, their families and their friends in the outdoors.”
“Many comments reflected an opposition to hunting and fishing in general and in particular on NWR lands,” said FWS in its release announcing the finalized plans. “We understand and respect this viewpoint. The legislation which guides how national wildlife refuges across the country are managed not only requires us to consider allowing wildlife observation, hunting, fishing, photography, environmental education and interpretation, but further directs us to promote these activities when compatible with refuge purposes.”
The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 defines wildlife-dependent recreation as a use of a refuge involving hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography and environmental education and interpretation. However, hunting and fishing opportunities at NWRs must be part of the refuge’s original mission when founded. According to FWS, the Chafee refuge was designated for this intent.
The proposal is part of a larger push by the federal government to allow more public access at NWRs throughout the country. In the beginning of April, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt announced the proposal of new and expanded hunting and fishing opportunities across more than 2.3 million acres in 97 national wildlife refuges, which, if passed, would be the single largest expansion of this kind by USFW in history. Last year, more than 1.4 million acres of public land began to allow hunting and fishing opportunities or expanded them.
The final hunting and fishing plan, which includes not only the Chafee NWR, but also the Block Island NWR, Ninigret NWR, Trustom Pond NWR and Sachuest Point NWR, can be viewed at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/ninigret/.