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Lee Metcalf, Swan River refuges propose more hunting, including black bear

Posted at 8:20 AM, Apr 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-04 10:20:36-04

MISSOULA — Two national wildlife refuges near Missoula may allow people to hunt more wildlife, including black bear.

On Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published potential changes to hunting and fishing opportunities offered on the Lee Metcalf and Swan River national wildlife refuges. The public has until April 30 to comment on the draft changes.

If finalized, any changes would likely go into effect before the fall hunting season.

A popular spot for birders and surrounded by ranchettes, the 2,800-acre Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge north of Stevensville borders more than 4 miles of the Bitterroot River, extending 1 to 2 miles east of the river. A few parcels on the western edge are between the river and Highway 93.

The USFWS proposal would add turkeys to the species that people can already hunt on the refuge. In Montana, turkey season runs from mid-April to mid-May and from Sept. 1 to Jan. 1, so shooting would occur in the spring where it hadn’t existed on the refuge before.

Alternative A of the proposal would open the northern half of the area – already open to archery hunting of white-tailed deer in the fall – to turkey hunting and would open four smaller parcels west of the river to both deer and turkey hunting and fishing. Alternative B would not add any more hunting.

According to the environmental assessment, “Opening turkey hunting may create some controversy with wildlife photographers and wildlife observers as they enjoy photographing and observing these birds, especially in the spring, when the toms are displaying.”

Land strips bordering the Bitterroot River and much of the southern third of the refuge – about 650 acres – are already open to waterfowl hunting in the fall. The only two areas closed to hunting are a section with the trails at the refuge’s southern end and an area surrounding and north of the refuge office.

Of the 240,000 annual visits to the Lee Metcalf, 965 are for waterfowl hunting and 1,030 are for deer hunting.

Farther north, about 15 miles southeast of Bigfork, the Swan River National Wildlife Refuge covers 1,060 acres surrounding the southern end of Swan Lake. There, the USFWS is proposing the creation of a new archery-only season on black bears where no bears were hunted before.

Alternative A would allow archery hunters to install portable blinds and stands to hunt black bear in the fall. Game cameras or bear baiting would not be allowed. Alternative B would not create a bear-hunting season.

One problem with adding more opportunities to hunt bear the Swan valley is it could add to the number of grizzly bear deaths in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. The USFWS environmental assessment acknowledges that hunters occasionally mistake grizzly bears for black bears and that “the Swan Valley is one of the areas with relatively high overall mortality for grizzly bears in the NCDE.” But the assessment goes on to say hunter misidentification “has the lowest probability of causing grizzly bear deaths among all causes.”

The USFWS pulled a proposal to allow moose hunting on the Swan River refuge at the suggestion of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologists, who pointed out that the refuge offers one of the best opportunities to view moose in the area. The refuge currently offers archery deer and elk hunting and waterfowl hunting around the lakeshore.

The proposals are part of a national push begun in June by the Department of the Interior to increase hunting and fishing on national wildlife refuges. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service said it worked closely with the states on the proposals and that some of the changes were made to “streamline regulations” and bring refuge opportunities more in line with state regulations.

More than 370 national wildlife refuges, including 25 in Montana, already allow limited hunting and fishing, but the proposals announced on Thursday would increase those activities on 61 refuges in eight states west of the Mississippi.

While hunting groups back the changes, conservationists said the policy went into effect without adequate environmental review. Like many of the Trump administration changes, federal agency oversight is diminished.

“While the Trump policy retains federal ownership, it basically eviscerates federal management,” Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility told the Associated Press in September. “The states end up managing federal land with federal dollars but following state laws. That’s a sea change from federal management for conservation and biodiversity rather than promoting hunting.”

People wishing to comment on the proposed changes should submit comments to Ben Gilles, Project Leader, Western Montana National Wildlife Refuge Complex, at (406) 727-7400 or email