The NRA Turns 300 Tax-Funded Wildlife Refuges Into Killing Fields
A public relations nightmare is engulfing the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Boynton Beach, Florida over a plan to become the first taxpayer funded national wildlife refuge in the country to allow the killing of alligators as an officially sanctioned form of recreation. What the general public doesn’t know is that killing as a form of public recreation is already sanctioned at over 300 out of a total of 556 national refuges across the country that are funded with the public purse. The killing includes some of the most beautiful species cherished by wildlife observers: Blue and Green Wing Teal, Wood Ducks, Hooded Merganzers, Bobcats and Mountain Lions as well as dozens of other species.
Since October of last year, management of the Loxahatchee Refuge, the last remnant of the northern Everglades, has come under withering public criticism for failing to comprehend the meaning of the word “refuge.” An in-depth search of congressional records, however, lays the blame at the feet of the gun-rights lobbying machine, the National Rifle Association (NRA), currently in the storm of public outrage over the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings and the assault weapon used in the killing of children. The NRA says it “played a key role in getting language included in the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, making hunting a ‘public priority use’ on refuges.” In September of last year, an additional 17 refuges added or expanded hunting and the NRA brags it was because it “championed and helped draft” the language in the 1997 legislation.
The language of the legislation is Orwellian. There are 15 separate references to the phrase “wildlife-dependent recreation.” Here’s an example: “Provide increased opportunities for families to experience compatible wildlife-dependent recreation, particularly opportunities for parents and their children to safely engage in traditional outdoor activities, such as fishing and hunting.”
President Bill Clinton, who astutely understands the political power of the NRA, signed the 1997 bill into law. Clinton had learned the power of the NRA in 1994. After signing legislation in September of 1994 that banned assault weapons for 10 years, Clinton watched a Republication sweep of both houses of Congress in the November midterms that year, ending 40 years of Democratic dominance. In just the last ten years, the NRA has poured $22 million into lobbying Congress. In just the 2011-2012 election cycle, the NRA pumped $24.6 million of soft money into elections according to the Federal Election Commission and Center for Responsive Politics. The NRA Foundation has given tens of millions more in grants to hunting clubs, 4H groups, and Boy Scout troops according to a review of their publicly accessible Form 990 tax filings.
Clinton, wittingly or unwittingly, had sealed the fate of wildlife protection on national Refuges when he signed Executive Order 12996 the year before the legislation was placed on his desk. The 1997 legislation itself describes what happened: “On March 25, 1996, the President issued Executive Order 12996, which recognized ‘compatible wildlife-dependent recreational uses involving hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation as priority public uses of the Refuge System.’ Executive Order 12996 is a positive step and serves as the foundation for the permanent statutory changes made by this Act.”
With the sweep of a pen, the President of the United States turned killing of wildlife on taxpayer-funded land into a priority recreational objective and placed it on a level plane with wildlife photography.
According to documents obtained under sunshine laws from the Loxahatchee Refuge, it has received written comments from 3,409 individuals over its “recreational” plan to allow the killing of alligators by hunters. The comments came from around the world, with 69 foreign countries represented. A total of 3,345 individuals stridently opposed the plan while 64 individuals supported the plan, consisting predominantly of hunters and hunting groups. All of the major newspapers in South Florida have carried the story, with Frank Cerabino of the Palm Beach Post asking in his column: “How is killing wildlife for sport in a wildlife refuge acceptable? It’s not like you allow a small number of violent ex-husbands into battered women’s shelters to beat up a sustainable quota of the women there...”
One of the written comments sounded a similar theme: Erik of Toronto wrote: Sounds like an oxymoron. In a wildlife refuge. Be like shooting seniors in a retirement home.”
The letters were revealing, taking the pulse of the public mood toward special interests, money and power trumping the will of the majority. A science teacher named David wrote: “I’m assuming that hunters are putting the squeeze on you to open Lox to this terrible idea.” A doctor named Steven from Davie, Florida said the proposal “smells of outside influence to high heaven,” adding “I doubt this message or any similar public comment will have an influence on the decision. I am well aware that the public comments you allow are simply required protocol that once fulfilled, is completely ignored.”
The view that the request for public comment was a form of political charade proved to be prophetic: the plan was officially approved by the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that runs the Refuge on January 17, 2013, less than three months from the date on the comment letters which were 98 percent opposed to the plan.
Scientists and experts wrote against the plan: a Natural Resource Specialist in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; a member of a steering committee of the American Zoological Association; a Senior Environmental Scientist from a neighboring county; a man involved in alligator rescue. The scientists made the point that there are ample alligator hunting opportunities outside the refuge and no legitimate rationale to bring the hunt inside.
The Refuge’s own documents bear the scientists out. The approved hunt plan indicates that hunting of alligators began in 2007 on the land that adjoins the Refuge – Storm Water Treatment Area 1 West, under the supervision of the state agency, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. According to the document, a total of 1019 alligators have been killed there during the period 2007 through 2011. No figures were yet available for 2012.
The alligators of Storm Water Treatment Area 1W are likely alligators from the Refuge. The report concedes: “Due to the proximity to the Refuge and lack of nesting within the STA-1W, it is likely that the majority of the alligators in STA-1W migrated from the Refuge.”
Given that there is already hunting on land next door, why put the thousands of children and birdwatchers who visit the Refuge at risk of a hunting accident and destroy the goodwill the Refuge needs for its volunteer and donor programs? It was that topic that drew the most scorching invective.
Karen of Fort Lauderdale wrote: “The very prospect of being subjected to the sight of these amazing and powerful creatures slaughtered would be reason enough for me to no longer come or bring my children and visiting friends to the refuge.”
Jeff from a produce business wrote: “I could not in good parenting bring my family there if this goes forward.”
Marc, owner of a family business in Fort Lauderdale wrote: “We bring our children there and our Scout Troop; what’s wrong with you people????”
Belinda of Toronto was concerned about the age of the hunters and the use of bang sticks (a firearm on a pole) that is one of the approved weapons. She said the use of bang sticks was “cavalier,” given that the Refuge planned to allow hunters under the age of 16 to participate, provided they are accompanied by an adult aged 21 or older. “All of this places both the users of these firearms, and the public, at greater risk. This is unacceptable,” she wrote.
Under the final plan outlined in the documents and signed off on by Refuge personnel, the hunting will be done at night (from one hour before sunset to one hour after sunrise) on Friday and Saturday nights from August 15 through November 1, beginning this year. In addition to bang sticks, other approved weapons include crossbow, snares, gigs, and spear guns. Motor boats will also be allowed. All in the dark.
Ana Campos, a local activist, led a petition drive to overturn the plan and set up a web page pleading to save George, the 12-foot alligator at Loxahatchee who has become an icon of the Refuge. Campos also wrote to the Refuge management, saying she was “deeply concerned over safety issues,” adding that the Refuge “is filled with children from Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to field trips and families…Bullets do not discriminate and all it takes is one hunting accident to destroy a life and a family.”
Campos is right. In just the last two years, three males, an 18-year old, 32-year old and 63-year old were shot to death in hunting accidents on National Wildlife Refuges. Many more serious, non-fatal accidents have occurred.
CBS and the Associated Press reported a November 6, 2010 hunting accident near the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge in Odessa, Minnesota where a father’s 12-gauge shotgun accidentally went off and tore a hole through the back of his 16-year old son, “before passing through his ribs, lung, diaphragm and liver.” The son survived but spent a month in the hospital recovering.
In addition to the written comments, a public hearing was held on the proposed alligator hunt on September 20, 2012 at the Vista Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Rosa Durando, Conservation Chair of the Audubon Society of the Everglades, who cares for homeless or unwanted farm animals at her farm not far from the Refuge, said “I have a big pond on my property…It’s not overrun with alligators, which would indicate to me there isn’t a surplus.” One statistical table in the approved Refuge Hunt Plan shows one of the main canals at the Refuge,L-39, going from an alligator population of 1,432 in 1981 to 134 in 2012. The other main canal, L-40, went from 546 alligators in 1981 to 147 in 2012. Why kill a shrinking population at the Refuge?
The management of the Loxahatchee Refuge concedes in its written responses to critics that the intent is not to reduce the population of alligators but to create “enjoyable recreation experiences.”
Don Anthony, Communications Director for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, testified at the hearing, asking “Why would you suddenly want to inflict guns, bullets and violence into this calm natural place?” In reality, with very little public awareness, 30,000 acres of the 144,000 acre Loxahatchee Refuge annually hosts hunters to kill beautiful ducks and coots. It’s called a “harvest,” the new preferred term by the NRA.
Anthony minced no words on the issue of “harvesting” living creatures. “By the way,” said Anthony, “the euphemisms alligator management or harvesting, it’s an alligator slaughter program. Alligators are violently hunted with spears and harpoons, and then the wildly thrashing animal is supposedly to be cleanly shot with a bang stick. What are the odds of that happening to a thrashing animal? Frequently they get loose. They suffer for hours or days before dying.”
Matthew Schwartz, Executive Director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, testified at the hearing and also mailed a detailed written statement. Schwartz said Florida has a resident population of 19 million and had an additional 87 million visitors in 2011 while there are only 145,000 licenses issued to resident hunters and another 7,500 to non-residents.
A recurring theme from hunters is that they are the ones who pay to support the Refuges through the purchase of Duck Stamps – a pictorial stamp produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that serves as a license for hunting migratory waterfowl – and their money entitles them to hunt on national Refuges.
Newton Cook, speaking on behalf of the United Waterfowlers, a duck hunting organization, said at the public hearing: “…waterfowlers have been buying Federal Duck Stamps for over 70 years and the money is what pays for these refuges to a large degree.” In fact, it’s the non-hunting taxpayer who has paid for the bulk of the refuges. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, since 1934, sales of Federal Duck Stamps to hunters, collectors and conservationists have raised more than $700 million to acquire 5.2 million acres of habitat for the National Wildlife Refuge system. That’s just 3.5 percent of the total 150 million acres that make up Refuges.
According to the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, there were 13.7 million people, aged 16 and older, who hunted in 2011; that’s just 4.3 percent of the U.S. population. The same survey showed 71.8 million people engaged in wildlife watching or 23 percent of the total population.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) issued the following statement by Kristin Simon, a Senior Cruelty Caseworker: “These are stunning creatures who want only to be left alone to swim, roll in the grass, hunt for food, and bask on sunny banks, and they deserve to live free of human torment. PETA urges the National Wildlife Refuge System to ban cruel and unnecessary initiatives that breed insensitivity toward animal life, disturb populations, and damage ecosystems. Officials would be better to promote environmentally sound activities like wildlife photography, bird watching, hiking, kayaking, camping, and canoeing. Wildlife refuges should be just that — refuges for wildlife.”
Gandhi said “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” The trajectory of our Nation’s moral progress is coming into clearer focus. The highest authority on law in our land, the U.S. Supreme Court, two years ago gave citizenship status to corporations to make certain they have an untrammeled voice in our elections in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. Today, some of the most beautiful living species, with a heart and a brain and the ability to feel pain and suffer -- attributes corporations do not possess -- have been reduced by lobbyists to a field of corn to be harvested.
Our very language is being rewritten by corporations through the legislative process: refuge and recreation and harvest now mean killing field.
Some of the highest moral authorities for children in the Catholic Church, who have bestowed on each other names like Bishop and Cardinal, are proven to have stripped those children of their childhood and dignity and trust of fellow humans by covering up for decades the sex abuse by priests upon this innocent and vulnerable population; wantonly shipping the abusers off to other parishes to continue to destroy the lives of more children.
Wall Street executives who caused the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression go unpunished while hungry people committing minor crimes are sent to jail.
Our Nation is at a pivotal crossroad. We can go the way of the Roman Empire or we can step out of our comfort zone and stand up for those without a voice. It starts right here, right now, with George the alligator. The final hunt plan must still be published in the Federal Register with a 30-day public comment period after that. To receive notice of when and where you can submit comments, email me at SaveGeorge2013@aol.com