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Brad Dokken, Forum News Service, Published October 11 2013

Feds restore access to more than 288,000 acres of public land in ND, 200,000 acres in Minnesota

Just in time for Saturday’s North Dakota’s pheasant opener, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday afternoon that it was immediately reopening federal Waterfowl Production Areas across the country.

The decision means hunters in North Dakota again have access to more than 288,000 acres of wildlife lands in the state that had been closed to public access since the federal government shutdown began Oct. 1.

Minnesota also has more than 200,000 acres of WPA lands.

Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, said national wildlife refuges and other federally managed lands remain closed.

“Today’s announcement is strictly for the WPAs,” Ashe said Friday in an email. “National wildlife refuges remain closed due to the lapse of appropriations and the government shutdown.”

Largely funded by the sale of federal duck stamps, WPAs are wetlands and grasslands set aside for waterfowl and other wildlife.

Threat of suit

The service’s decision to reopen its WPA lands came after North Dakota lawmakers informed the federal agency of their plans to file a complaint in U.S. District Court.

According to a news release from Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s office, the complaint was completed and within minutes of being filed Friday afternoon when Ashe announced his decision.

Dalrymple and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, in talks with service officials, had said they were prepared to file the complaint at 3 p.m. Friday.

“These Waterfowl Production Areas are an important part of North Dakota’s outdoor experience and the law is very clear that a government shutdown is not a legal justification to close these unstaffed, public lands,” Dalrymple said in a statement. “We are pleased that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to reopen these lands in time for North Dakota’s opening day of pheasant hunting.”

In their complaint, Dalrymple and Stenehjem said the closures were unnecessary and unwarranted because the service does not, under normal conditions, maintain full-time staff on WPA lands and because there are no additional public safety or management issues created by keeping the lands open.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., also had written to service officials requesting the WPA lands be reopened.

The North Dakota officials said the law allows WPA closure only in exceptional circumstances, none of which were present.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s attempt to prohibit access to the wide outdoors was clearly contrary to law, which assures these areas are to be open to hunters and anglers,” Stenehjem said in a statement. “I am delighted (the) Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to end the confusion, and to allow our sportsmen to enjoy a successful hunting season.”

In a news release, the service concurred, saying that reopening its WPAs wouldn’t result in “further government expenditures or obligation.”

‘YEEHAW!’

Conservation groups and state wildlife managers also welcomed Friday’s news.

“The waterfowl production areas are important public lands for hunters,” North Dakota Game and Fish Department Director Terry Steinwand said in a statement. “We have been working hard all week toward the goal of having these areas back open by the pheasant opener.”

Steinwand said the department appreciated Ashe’s decision to reopen the WPA lands.

Bob St. Pierre, vice president of marketing for Pheasants Forever, summed up the conservation group’s response on Twitter.

“YEEHAW! WPAs reopened to public hunting effective immediately,” St. Pierre tweeted.

The service said it will continue to monitor the effects of keeping the WPAs open and again would close access if it incurs any expenditures or obligations that violate federal law.