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Thursday, August 6, 2020

Enjoy the wildlife refuges, but wear orange and keep your head down

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has released a final hunting and fishing plan for Rhode Island’s five national wildlife refuges.

A draft plan was issued in the spring, and during the 85-day public comment period, 1,641 comments and two petitions were received from the public, according to the federal agency. Fish & Wildlife Service officials said many of the comments reflected an opposition to hunting and fishing in general and in particular on refuge lands.

After reviewing the public comments, the agency changed some things from the draft plan.

The Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown will see expanded hunting opportunities. (USFWS)

Here is a look at the final hunting and fishing plan for the five refuges (click the link to see the detailed plan for each refuge and accompanying maps):

Block Island (133 acres): Existing hunting activities, which have been ongoing for many years, will continue and expand. The season dates will reflect a ban on weekend hunting, which the town of New Shoreham desired. The agency said it will continue to encourage hunters to register with the police chief when arriving.

John H. Chafee (at Pettaquamscutt Cove, divided between the towns of South Kingstown and Narragansett, 563 aces): Beginning this year, about 547 acres — less safety setbacks — will be open to hunting of migratory birds (geese, ducks, coot, and mergansers), white-tailed deer, wild turkey, coyote, and fox, with some season and weapon restrictions. Saltwater fishing will be open along 1,600 feet of shoreline on the north bank of the Narrow River near Sprague Bridge.

Currently, there are no hunting or fishing opportunities offered at the refuge.

Commenters expressed concern with hunting in the Mumford Unit, near an elementary school and the William C. O’Neill Bike Path. The agency has removed this unit from the hunting plan. No hunting will be allowed in this area.

Deer hunting within the town of Narragansett will be limited to archery only, rather than allowing both firearms and archery. Waterfowl hunting and fishing on the Narrow River will be allowed as originally proposed.

The agency has dropped the proposal to create a parking lot off Crest Avenue, and will pursue other access means in the future.

Ninigret (Charlestown, 883 acres): Existing hunting activities including mentored deer hunts for youth and disabled veterans will continue and expand. The abundant deer population is exerting high pressure on native vegetation and allowing non-native species a chance to gain foothold, according to the agency. Officials said controlling the deer population will help the overall health of refuge’s natural systems.

Sachuest Point (Middletown, 242 acres): No firearms will be allowed, and there will be no general hunting season open to the public. During the short — three- to five-day — special mentored deer hunt, only archery will be allowed. The hunting area also has been reduced to exclude all areas near the town beaches, campground, and the salt marsh. The mentored hunt will not occur every year. These hunts are expected to begin in 2022 or 2023.

“Yes, we did hear the many people who were not in favor of allowing this use at Sachuest Point,” the agency said. “These types of mentored hunts are very short term, provide people the chance to engage in the outdoors in a way that they choose to, and gives them an opportunity which they might not otherwise have without a special program like this.”

The agency noted that the hunting opportunities provided at Ninigret for youth and their families and for disabled veterans are popular. Officials said they are offering the same mentored hunts at Sachuest Point because the refuge’s “wide and gentle trail systems allow better access for those who may be physically challenged, the openness of the terrain, and the opportunity to engage people from a wider array of communities.”

Sachuest Point, which has the most visitors of Rhode Island’s five refuges, with about 325,000 visitors annually, will be closed during these special hunts.

Currently, there are no hunting opportunities offered at the refuge. Anglers can saltwater fish from designated refuge shorelines, with the exception of Sachuest Beach, which is closed between April 1 and Sept. 15 to protect nesting shorebirds. No fishing is allowed in the Maidford salt marsh.

Trustom Pond (South Kingstown, 777 acres): No hunting will be allowed on the water body itself. 

Trustom Pond NWR (photo by Will Collette)
Waterfowl hunting will only be allowed where it always has been — on field 1, which lies east of the main refuge land base. Archery hunting for deer will be allowed, but limited by the number of permits granted. 

All archers must carry a state hunting license — which requires a hunter education course — and must show proficiency in the use of archery equipment. Hunting opportunities are being expanded, but no hunting will be allowed within 200 feet of a dwelling or within 100 feet of a public trail.

“We are confident that this activity can be accommodated safely and with minimal conflicts with other users,” according to the agency.

The federal agency noted that hunting and fishing occur on dozens of national wildlife refuges. The legislation that guides how national wildlife refuges are managed requires the agency to consider allowing wildlife observation, hunting, fishing, photography, environmental education, and interpretation and directs it to promote these activities when compatible with refuge purposes. None of these uses have a priority over another, according to agency officials.

“Your opportunity to enjoy seeing deer, hear the gobble of a wild turkey, capture that great photograph, and experience all of the other wildlife species found on national wildlife refuges will continue,” according the Fish & Wildlife Service. 

“The hunting program isn’t going to harm the overall population of any wildlife species on the refuges. It would not be allowed if it did. Our plan is about sharing these lands with others, even though some may not agree with how others choose to enjoy the natural environment. These lands are for every citizen’s use, for all Americans, not just a few.”