Why You Should Oppose the Closure of California's State Game Refuges

By Marilyn Jasper


A study is being conducted by the California Department of Fish and game (CDFG) regarding the State Game Refuges where currently no hunting is allowed. Reportedly, based on public input, CDFG will review and evaluate to consider "closing" the game refuges (which would then allow firearms and hunting). CDFG is accepting public comments up to December 1, 2010, and must submit its report to the legislature by January, 1, 2011. The study was mandated by AB 1166, Cox, in 2008.*
Evaluation of the Status of Existing State Game Refuges

The California Legislature has directed the CDFG to review and evaluate the existing State Game Refuge system. A State Game Refuge is an area of land on which hunting is not permitted at any time unless specifically authorized by the Fish and Game Commission.
In 2008, the CDFG proposed a legislative change to eliminate the State Game Refuge status of some areas. The proposed change in status would open these lands to public and private use, consistent with adjacent properties, and consistent with other refuges managed by the state and federal government. The Legislature directed the Department to seek public input on this topic.
Motivation and Merits of Closing State Refuges

CDFG must provide a summary of relevant comments and other information provided by the public to the Legislature by January 1, 2011.
Reasons to OPPOSE and submit comments by December 1, 2010 deadline:
CDFG appears to use faulty logic by claiming use on a refuge must somehow be consistent with adjacent properties. Applying that logic to game refuges would mean there could never be a game refuge adjacent to any parcel boundary where refuge rules do not apply. The fact that state refuges are not managed in the same manner as other refuges managed by state/federal governments is irrelevant. National forests and parks are managed differently from state forests and parks. CDFG's argument seems to be that hunting creates and fulfills a "consistency" criteria. Such an argument for "consistency" is specious.
CDFG appears to assume that the only reason(s) for establishing the refuge/no hunting or no-firearm designated areas 100 years ago was to provide a supply of game animals for hunting. Thus, the claim is made that since the refuge may no longer serve that purpose, it should be closed and hunting be allowed. However, this "purpose" claim is as speculative as the claims that the refuges no longer serve that purpose. The refuges have value - for wildlife of many species and for citizens who wish to enjoy wildlife watching or nature without concerns for dodging errant bullets or arrows. Moreover, there are other species which may not be "game" in the sense of hunting that benefit from refuge habitat.
Assuming CDFG's original purpose claim (refuges increase unmolested game that expand into adjacent hunting lands) is valid, CDFG now claims that the refuges are not working, based on studies. However, we don't know the nature or effectiveness of the studies. No studies or any solid evidence to support such claims are available or cited on CDFG's websites. Additionally, we are forced to "trust" an agency that is pressured by hunters and for decades has attempted to do away with refuges (referring to them as "tragic waste"**) to fairly review and evaluate refuge closure. This in itself creates a conflict of interest or a bias for CDFG to potentially ignore valid science or public sentiment, and to alleviate pressure from hunters by just opening up refuges for hunting, which is akin to habitat destruction.
CDFG claims that "The scientific community's knowledge of wildlife ecology and behavior has increased since these refuges were created, and based on this information CDFG has developed significant regulatory processes to protect and enhance wildlife populations." First, this is irrelevant. The fact is that in a refuge area, wildlife IS protected. Second, by its own admission, CDFG has concerns regarding the decline in black-tail deer populations. In fact, CDFG has initiated a study to try to find out why black-tailed deer populations have declined over the past 20 years. According to its website (http://www.dfg.ca.gov/news/news10/2010080303-Deer-Study.html ), CDFG "...began a three-year study of habitat changes, predation and land use patterns affecting black-tailed deer in Mendocino County. The decline in the harvest of black-tailed deer over the past 20 years is well-documented." The website goes on to state that statewide, the harvest of black-tailed deer bucks has declined from 27,846 in 1989 to 14,895 in 2009, a drop of 46 percent. In the counties in the study area zone, harvest numbers have dropped from 3,013 to 1,297, a 57 percent decline. Based on these population declines, if anything, CDFG should be pressing for more, not less, game refuges.
CDFG also claims that "Elimination of the 'State Game Refuge' designation will have no significant impact on the wildlife and ecosystems of these lands." However, no evidence, no proof, and no studies are presented to support this conclusion. Thus a claim can be made that since the biggest declines in deer herd populations (Mendocino's 57 percent decline) are occurring where there are no game refuges, then possibly the game refuges are indeed serving the so-called purpose of increasing herds/populations and that elimination of the State Game Refuge designations will have significant negative impacts on wildlife and ecosystems.
In the analysis of SB 1166 (2008), the validity of the game refuge "purpose" is questioned. CDFG states that the purpose in establishing the refuges 100 years ago was to protect deer from being overexploited during the period of early regulation and enforcement of game laws - the end of "market hunting" of game species and the beginning of active conservation. However, SB 1166's analysis questions that stated purpose and suggests there were other valid reasons for establishing the Game Refuges.***
At the federal level, similar decisions to open protected wildlife areas to hunting were successfully challenged in court. In one case, Fund for Animals successfully argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to vastly expand sport hunting without first investigating the cumulative impact on refuge visitors, migratory birds, sensitive resources and threatened and endangered species violated the National Environmental Policy Act (which requires F&WS look at the whole picture before changing a refuge's hunting policy). In other words, the agency must evaluate not only the effect hunting will have on the plants and animals in a particular refuge, but also the cumulative effect hunting will have on all refuges.
Refuges are still safe havens for wild animals and for people who wish to hike, observe, boat, etc., without the threat of hunting and all its impacts. Closing refuges results in a loss for both the animals and the people who use the lands in peace.
With hunters representing less than 1 percent of the state's population, the vast majority of citizens would not approve the closing any State Game Refuge. If a true study and poll were taken, the vast majority would vote for increasing game refuge acreage, rather than eliminating or depleting it.
Additional motives for closing the State Game Refuges can be found in the implementation of the SHARE program (Shared Habitat Alliance for Recreational Enhancement) which pays private landowners handsomely to allow hunting. We hope the CDFG's "review and evaluation" includes the potential financial windfall that will open up for the private landowners as well.
State Game Refuge Closures must not be allowed to proceed without full disclosure of all impacts for every refuge. The public knows very little about this proposal and comment process, and at a recent county Fish and Game Commission meeting, not one commissioner knew about the proposal (except the one who was concerned and questioning it). Thus, the "public outreach" mandate is not being fulfilled. CDFG also should study the merits of increasing Game Refuges designations throughout the state and especially in the Mendocino area where black-tail herd declines are critical.
I urge everyone to oppose the closure proposal and to submit comments to that effect immediately.
If there are any questions, please contact Marilyn Jasper at marilyn.jasper@mlc.sierraclub.org

* SB 1166, Cox, 2008, was created to address the issue that prohibited law enforcement agencies to enter game refuges in performance of their duties because firearms/weapons were not allowed.  The first provision in SB 1166 permitted law enforcement officers to enter a game refuge in the performance of their duties.  A tacked-on second provision required that the CDFG undertake "...education and outreach efforts, including efforts regarding the potential closure of all state game refuges other than 2 specified refuges. The department would be required to provide an opportunity for public comment. The bill would require the department, on or before January 1, 2011, to prepare and submit to the Legislature a report on those efforts and a summary of any information provided by the public that is relevant to the potential closure of those state game refuges. For details on that legislation, go to:  http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/07-08/bill/sen/sb_1151-1200/sb_1166_bill_20080927_chaptered.html
** "Game Refuges:  A 'Tragic Waste," TRACKS, 1997.  http://www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/gamerefuges/docs/1997Tracks-GameRefuges.pdf
*** According to the author's office wildlife biologists at CDFG contend that the game refuge system no longer serves a purpose and should be abolished. However, there are some who believe that the refuges have value.... 
 The author indicates that the refuges were established for the purpose of providing a steady supply of game animals for hunting, however, it is unclear from the legislative history that that was the only or specific purpose of the refuges. [bold added] From: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/07-08/bill/sen/sb_1151-1200/sb_1166_cfa_20080623_111449_asm_comm.html



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