CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While members of the U.S. Congress plumb new depths of governmental dysfunction, we folks out here on Main Street can only wonder how the current government shutdown will affect us.West Virginia's natural resources officials found a potential problem earlier this week, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service barred hunters and anglers from the agency's national wildlife refuge system."Closing off public access to our national wildlife refuges and public lands is the last thing we want to do, but is consistent with operations called for during a government shutdown" Dan Ashe, the Fish and Wildlife Service's director, said in a statement."This is difficult news for the families, birdwatchers, hunters and anglers, and recreationists who enjoy the great outdoors on the refuges - as well as for the many local businesses who depend on the tourism and outdoor recreation economy they generate."
West Virginia has two refuges, the sprawling Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the 16,628-acre Canaan Valley NWR. Access to both is now closed.Curtis Taylor, wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources, doesn't believe the refuge hunting and fishing shutdown is legal."I don't think [the service] has the authority to [stop hunting or fishing]," he said. "The federal government might own the land, but the wildlife on those refuges belongs to the people of the state, not to the feds."After he was informed of the closure and Ashe's comments, Taylor contacted the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in Washington, D.C., and asked what legal authority Ashe had to close the refuges to hunters, anglers, birders and other recreationists.The answer, apparently, is no authority at all.
Here's the key phrase from an e-mail Taylor received from the association's legal eagles:"A United States Supreme Court decision in 1892 finally established the legal precedent that it was the government's responsibility to hold wild nature in trust for all citizenry. That being the case, the government can't take a holiday or prohibit people from frequenting public land or harvesting their wildlife as regulated under state law," the e-mail read.Interestingly, U.S. Forest Service lands and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands were not closed when the shutdown started. That means the Monongahela, Jefferson and George Washington national forests will remain open to hunting and fishing, as will the public hunting lands that surround Corps of Engineers lakes.The jury is still out on the 72,808-acre New River Gorge National River, which is administered by the U.S. Park Service. National parks are closed because of the shutdown, but New River is not a full-fledged park.A call to the New River main office in Glen Jean went unanswered. A recording said all park employees had been furloughed, and phone messages would not be returned until after the shutdown ends.The national wildlife refuge closures, if they are indeed legal and remain in effect, have the potential to affect hunters during three West Virginia hunting seasons.
The Ohio River Islands closure is probably affecting duck hunters right now. Duck season opened Oct. 1. The Canaan Valley closure has the potential to affect woodcock and deer hunters. The woodcock season opens Oct. 12, and the firearm season for deer opens Nov. 25.The DNR's Taylor contends that the Ohio River and Canaan Valley lands are public and unfenced, and therefore should be accessible to people who want to use them."They might have the right to close gated roads, but they shouldn't be able to stop hunters from walking on the refuges," he said. "That would be like telling people they couldn't drive on the interstate system."