Some farmers fear a proposed rule would constrain their use of National Wildlife Refuge land for agricultural purposes, while environmental advocates laud the measure as a way to protect wildlife habitat from the negative impacts of climate change.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed biological integrity, diversity and environmental health (BIDEH) rule would limit predator control, bioengineered crops and pesticides, with exceptions. Crop cultivation, haying, grazing, harvesting and other farming practices would only be allowed if a refuge cannot meet wildlife management objectives or legal requirements "through maintenance, management, restoration, or mimicking of natural ecosystem processes and functions.”

The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act in 1997 “elevated ensuring the maintenance of BIDEH to a similar level of importance as ensuring the mission of the system and the purposes of each refuge are carried out,” according to a summary of the policy

FWS issued a BIDEH policy in 2001 but did not issue any rules because it “did not anticipate the extent of climate change impacts on refuge species and habitats or the need to clarify in regulations our interpretation of and authority to implement the BIDEH mandate,” Assistant Interior Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Shannon Estenoz wrote. 

More than 560 national wildlife refuges cover more than 850 million acres, FWS says. 

The proposed rule "reinforces our commitment to protecting and enhancing biodiversity to support individual refuge purposes and the system’s broader mission,” Stephen Guertin, FWS’s deputy director for policy, told lawmakers at a hearing in April.

The rule, however, has drawn concern from farmers who rely on refuge land to grow crops, particularly those who have a long history with the refuge system. 

Some land in refuges in the Klamath Basin, for example, was originally ceded to the U.S. “for purposes of reclamation through irrigation legislation enacted by California in 1905,” according to Oregon farmer Marc Staunton. This land was leased back to producers while irrigation was developed with the understanding that they would be open to homesteads under public land law.

Amid disputes in the ‘50s and ‘60s over whether to continue leasing the lands or open them for homesteading, lawmakers passed the Kuchel Act, which Staunton said “disallowed further homesteading while providing for continued leasing of these reclaimed lands for commercial agriculture.” These lands are now overseen as refuges devoted to waterfowl management but also allow agricultural use, he said.

Staunton worries that the new rule could limit his ability to continue farming on such tracts in the future, although he complies with current rules such as leaving some planted acres unharvested to serve as food for waterfowl.

“Specific to the lands within the Klamath Refuge Complex, those are pretty uniquely defined and so I’m very cautious about trying to add more rules to that,” Staunton said.

J.D. Schmidt, a rancher in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, has similar concerns. He now grazes 2,000 mother sheep in the Monte Vista and Alamosa refuges during summer months, and if he were to be restricted from using the land, he says they would have nowhere to go.

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“I would have to sell 50 percent of my business,” he said, noting that the 2,000 sheep make up half of his herd. 

Schmidt has been grazing sheep on the refuge since the 1980s. He said they do not conflict with the local birds or wildlife and have reduced weed control costs for the refuge. 

Guertin, at the hearing, pushed back on some of the criticism, noting the proposal does not supersede any of the agency’s obligations for public use of refuge lands. It also does not ban farming but sets a “default position” the agency can use when determining exceptions, he said.

A coalition of 27 hunting and fishing groups also expressed concern. In a written comment, the groups said the rule “has a single-minded focus on the overall mission of the [National Wildlife Refuge System] and does not fulfill the need to support the purpose of each unique NWRS unit.”

The groups include the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.

“We don’t understand what the problem is to begin with and we think the service should revisit the cooperative farming piece,” said Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies executive director Ron Regan, who added that refuges provide habitat for waterfowl and other birds, often attracted by farming practices.

“States are comfortable with that and feel like that’s a good approach for producing healthy, abundant numbers of migratory birds,” he said.

On the other hand, Paul Ruprecht, the Nevada director for the Western Watersheds Project, thinks the proposal is a good one. His group, in a comment, expressed concerns about the impacts of livestock grazing, such as “disturbing biological soil crusts and reducing native perennial grasses,” contributing to the spread of invasive grasses. 

“I think it’s going to depend on how they’re implemented at the refuge level, but I do think that they’ll lead to better considered decisions, more justified decisions on livestock grazing and haying on refuges,” Ruprecht told Agri-Pulse

The Sierra Club “strongly supports the Fish and Wildlife Service’s recognition of the need to ban predator control of native predators on refuge system lands, and to provide direction for requiring mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions,” senior staff attorney Karimah Schoenhut said in a comment. She asked the agency to further tighten the predator rules and add more clarity to its climate change mitigation language.

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