SOUTH KINGSTOWN/NARRAGANSETT – A proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) to allow hunting and fishing in the Chafee Wildlife Refuge has been met with strong opposition from residents and government officials. Concerns mostly center on the potential discharging of firearms in the refuge, which is in extremely close proximity to neighborhoods and is used frequently for outdoor recreational activities, should the proposal come to fruition.
“A lot of people in this community hike through that preserve, they take their dogs walking in that preserve, they go out there with their children,” said Maggie Clune of Holland Road in Wakefield, who is helping to organize local resistance to the proposal from residents. “This is a very dangerous idea that’s being put forward.”
The proposal is part of a larger push by the federal government to allow more public access at national wildlife refuges (NWR) 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.
In Rhode Island, hunting and fishing opportunities are proposed to begin or be expanded at each of the state’s five national wildlife refuges. USFW has put forward the following:
- Expand opportunities for deer hunting and open migratory game bird hunting at Block Island National Wildlife Refuge.
- Expand deer hunting opportunities, and open wild turkey hunting opportunities on Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge lands.
- Open opportunities for deer, wild turkey, and migratory game bird hunting at John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge. Additionally, open fishing opportunities in designated areas of John H. Chafee NWR.
- Open limited deer hunting opportunities at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge to special user groups including: youth, veterans, hunters with disabilities, and women.
- Expand migratory game bird hunting opportunities at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, and open archery deer and wild turkey hunting opportunities by refuge permit beginning in 2021.
- Fox and coyote hunting opportunities will be available during the deer hunting season at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge, John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge, Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, and Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge.
“I’m very disappointed,” said District 33 (Narragansett, South Kingstown) Representative Carol Hagan-McEntee. “I think this is coming from the Trump administration. I’ll be very disappointed if this goes through, especially prior to the election.”
National Wildlife Refuges, while designated as public land, are property of the federal government. Therefore, federal mandates, such as purposing the refuges for hunting and fishing opportunities, would supersede state or local law. For example, in Narragansett, there is a law prohibiting the discharge of any firearm in the town. However, that law would not come into play on a national wildlife refuge should the proposal become reality, despite large portions of the area being in the Town of Narragansett.
There is a common conception that hunting and fishing are not allowed in national wildlife refuges and that they exist solely to protect the habitat and wildlife within their boundaries. According to USFW, this is not true.
“The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, which amended the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, defines wildlife-dependent recreation as a use of a refuge involving hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation,” reads USFW’s website.
However, hunting and fishing opportunities must be a part of the refuge’s original mission when founded. According to Charlie Vandemoer, USFW Refuge Manager in Rhode Island, the Chafee refuge was designated for this intent.
"It's one of the few refuges that, in its specific purposes, was to provide for recreational opportunities - fishing, hunting, photography, environmental interpretation and education," he said.
Currently, hunting is not allowed throughout the refuge, except in certain areas for waterfowl, although, according to Vandemoer, the activity was allowed up until 2011 in certain areas.
"The Stedman property in South Kingstown has a long history of deer hunting," he said. "Waterfowl hunting in Pettaquamscutt Cove, in particular, has always been going on and continues today."
In 2011, USFW restricted most hunting activity in the refuge due to policy changes.
The 550-acre Chafee Wildlife Refuge plays host to a large number of migratory birds, waterfowl and other wildlife, and is home to the largest black duck population in Rhode Island. In addition to containing the popular Narrow River, used by many for recreational purposes in the summer, such as a swim race put on by the local preservation organization, the refuge abuts a number of residential areas throughout both Narragansett and South Kingstown. The refuge is not a singular, separated area, as might be the case in the western and mid-western parts of the country, rather it contains numerous parcels of land at various locations throughout both towns. A large portion proposed to allow the hunting of deer, fall turkey and waterfowl on the Narragansett side of the river, dubbed the “Middlebridge Unit” in the proposal, would come extremely close to residential neighborhoods in Narragansett’s north end. Further, on the South Kingstown side, a parcel dubbed the “Stedman Unit” would allow the same kind of hunting opportunities near Crest Avenue, Hillside Road and Holland Drive.
“Under this proposal, you could hunt right along the road in someone’s neighborhood,” said Narragansett Town Councilor Jesse Pugh. “I empathize with the people that live in these neighborhoods. I do want to stress that this is not about the right to hunt in general. This has nothing to do with that and I have no issues with that at all. This is about this area specifically, the character of Narragansett, the culture of Narragansett – the summer season, the late summer season – this is not, from what I could tell, what people in Narragansett want. I think it’s too residential, it’s too open and it’s just not a safe option for us.”
At a town council meeting last week, Pugh put forward a resolution to oppose the proposal from USFW as it pertains to Chafee Willdlife Refuge, but the motion was shot down by the council in a 1-3 vote with one abstention. Councilors not in approval of opposing, including council president Matthew Mannix and councilors Rick Lema and Patrick Murray, said it was too soon to oppose the idea and that Rhode Islanders had rights to use the land in this manner. In Lema’s case, he said he believed USFW would allow for only bow hunting in the area, despite firearms, specificlly shotguns and muzzleloaders, being permitted under the proposal. Lema did say he would be opposed to the use of firearms in the refuge, stating “that’s crazy.”
Comment on the proposal in Narragansett saw one member of the public in approval of the USFW proposal and two against.
The following is proposed for Chafee Wildlife Refuge by USFW:
-Migratory bird hunting would match State regulations on the following hunting units: Congdon Cove, Foddering Farms, Middle Bridge, Sedge Island, Starr Drive, and Stedman (September – January).
- White-tailed deer hunting would match State regulations on following units: Congdon Cove, Foddering Farms, Middle Bridge, Mumford, Starr Drive, and Stedman. Deer hunters would be allowed to take fox and coyote during the deer season (September – January).
- Wild turkey hunting would match State regulations on Foddering Farms Unit (April/May and October) and wild turkey hunting in the fall will be open on Congdon Cove, Middle Bridge, Mumford, Starr Drive, and Stedman Units (October).
- Firearms hunting in accordance with State regulations will be allowed on designated refuge lands.
On Monday, the South Kingstown Town Council took up the issue and reached a consensus to express opposition to the proposal based on the location of the Chafee site being suburban in character and not compatible with firearm hunting, along with well-established recreational uses on the properties slated for new hunting opportunities, including the cycling on the William C. O’Neill Bike Path.
Resistance to the proposal also came from other sources. In a letter to USFW dated May 26, U.S. Congressmen Jim Langevin and David Cicilline, along with U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, expressed “strong concerns” with the idea.
“We are concerned about the proposed expansion of hunting at the John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge and Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge,” wrote the Congressional delegation. “Neither of these refuges are currently open to hunting of any kind and the proposed expansion is strongly opposed by adjacent communities. The expansion of hunting in the Rhode Island Wildlife Refuge Complex has the potential to be uniquely disruptive to the surrounding community and poses a risk to public safety. Furthermore, expanding hunting into new areas would impose new management challenges and costs on the agency.”
“The refuge is my front yard,” said Nancy Shanahan, who lives on Crest Avenue in South Kingstown. “I’m opposed to this because it’s a safety risk for the children, the families and their pets who live in this neighborhood. We have many retirees here. This is unsafe in relation to the schools as well, The Prout School Cross Country Team uses Hillside Road, they come down Crest Avenue and this is part of their course for the team for running. There’s lots of recreational activity. We have young children in the neighborhood, people walking their pets. We’re all dead-end streets. It’s totally unsafe.”
“My backyard directly abuts the wildlife refuge and the bike path,” said Azure Cygler, who lives on Mumford Road in Narragansett. “I have two kids, my friends have kids, their friends and so on. We all play in and around the woods year round and the thought of dodging bullets is sickening.”
Residents in South Kingstown also reported that in the past, they’ve had stray bullets hit their homes from hunters using the refuge illegally, requiring calls to the police.
The Narrow River Preservation Association (NRPA) also expressed opposition in a letter to USFW, along with Hagan-McEntee.
“NRPA is in support of the new saltwater fishing opportunities as proposed, but not in support of allowing hunting on refuge properties,” wrote the organization. “We feel strongly that the current regulations, which do not allow for hunting, are entirely appropriate for the refuge as they are now. Our main concern is that the use of firearms will endanger not only nearby homes, but also people as they participate in recreational activities available in the refuge, including walking, kayaking and boating in the area.”
The full proposal can be found on the John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge website at fws.gov/refuge/john_h_chafee/.
The Refuge is accepting written public comments through June 8, and has already extended the deadline twice for public comment, having to cancel in-person open house meetings on the proposal due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Comments or questions can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to 50 Bend Road, Charlestown, RI 02813, attention: Hunting/Fishing Plan.