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NWRS policies updated

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The federal government is updating its policies regarding the management of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS), including a new rule which could potentially prohibit cattle grazing on refuge lands.

The new regulations would overhaul several policies affecting agriculture, predator control and refuge managers.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is proposing these new regulations to establish a policy prohibiting farming and grazing on public lands in the national wildlife refuge system, unless new, extra-statutory criteria are satisfied.

“Instead of empowering refuge managers to use the most effective tools at their disposal, the proposed rule ties the hands of refuge managers from making important management decisions by requiring them to work through regulatory red tape before conducting important management actions,” reads the House Committee on Natural Resources website. 

The website continues, “Since wildlife refuges are often strapped for resources and manpower, this proposed rule would make it even more difficult for refuge managers to actively manage the lands and waters they have been charged with stewarding.”

If finalized, the proposed rule would make sweeping changes to refuge managers’ ability to utilize several key management tools on NWRS lands, including agricultural practices, native predator control, genetically-engineered crops and pesticides.

Background information

According to the House Committee on Natural Resources website, the NWRS is a network of FWS-administered lands, submerged lands and waters which provide habitats for fish and wildlife resources across the U.S. and U.S. territories.

The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement (NWSI) Act was established to support conservation and management of fish, wildlife and plant resources to benefit present and future generations.

In addition to the NWSI Act, the Biological Integrity, Diversity and Environmental Health (BIDEH) Rule, established in 2001, clearly states wildlife is the FWS’s first and foremost concern.

It also explicitly mentions the importance of active management in the NWRS for the betterment of wildlife, does not prohibit any specific management tools and leaves refuge managers the ability to make decisions.

On Feb. 1, the FWS issued a proposed rule change to the BIDEH policies, including directives on climate, habitat, water, soil and air to maintain BIDEH in the NWRS. 

“These directives include regulations prioritizing deference to natural processes as a means of achieving refuge habitat objectives and landscape planning goals,” states the FWS. “The proposed rule also includes resource-intensive activities, such as logging and livestock grazing, which are to be avoided unless they fully meet the directives of the rule.”

Farming and grazing on refuge lands are common and integrated with other management practices by refuge managers. 

Currently, ranchers can apply for special-use permits to graze livestock on refuge lands, which are approved or denied on a case-by-case basis, but the proposed change would create a “default position” of prohibiting grazing.

However, several state agencies and national organizations have submitted comments urging the federal government to reconsider the proposed rule language.

Recent oversight hearing

On April 10, government officials and witnesses gathered for a hearing on the proposed BIDEH Rule by the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife and Fisheries.

The hearing allowed committee members to hear from witnesses around the country to learn more about the proposed rule changes.

FWS states, “The proposal includes a legal standard for managing refuge activities which would instruct refuge managers to use their sound professional judgment, informed by the best available scientific information, to ensure management actions benefit wildlife conservation by contributing to and not diminishing BIDEH.”

House Committee Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-AR) states, “The proposed policy changes would limit the use of proven effective management tools which are mutually beneficial for wildlife, the refuge system and those conducting management activities.”

Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Bentz (R-OR) adds, “I have grave concerns about the proposed BIDEH Rule proposed by the FWS, as this rule is misguided and driven by ideological agendas rather than practical conservation principles, poorly designed and impractical in its application.” 

He further states, “This rule would not only hinder proven effective management tools crucial for the well-being of our wildlife and refuge system, but also inappropriately restrict sportsmen and sportswomen who contribute significantly to conservation efforts. Regulations such as this must serve the best interests of our wildlife and those who assist in their stewardship, and this rule does neither.”

Testimony continues

Testifying before the House Committee, USFWS Deputy Director for Program Management and Policy Steven Guertin states, “The proposal would support conservation and equip refuge managers with tools to better address the threats of climate change and biodiversity loss to fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats.”

However, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Executive Secretary Gordon Batcheller testified the agency is deeply concerned by the justification and substance of key parts of the proposed rule and accompanying policy updates. 

“While the association made the most of the opportunity to engage with the FWS on the review of the draft policy and rule, the vast majority of our substantive input was ignored,” he notes. “The proposed rule is rife with vague, ambiguous definitions which could be leveraged to restrict multiple use of NWRS lands and waters.”

During the hearing, Rep. Harriet Hageman (R-WY) brought up the issue of agricultural production on NWRS, particularly for migrating ducks, stating supplemental rice production is vital to ensure waterfowl have the food sources to provide energy for migration routes.

While David Wielicki, chief executive officer of the South Carolina Waterfowl Association, expresses his concern the proposed BIDEH Rule updates would eliminate waterfowl food sources.

Public comment

Multiple organizations representing livestock ranchers, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Wyoming Stock Growers Association and the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, voiced their concerns in a letter to FWS about the proposed changes.

The Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA) submitted its concerns, stating, “Being home to multiple national wildlife refuges and grazed by many producers puts Montana at risk for experiencing all of the negative impacts this rule change may create.”

In their comments, MSGA emphasized the importance and value of livestock grazing for land health, habitat conservation, rural communities and the economy. 

The association also expressed concerns about the detrimental effects on cattle operations surrounding the refuge if predatory species are introduced to the landscape.

Also concerned about the proposed changes, Family Farm Alliance states, “It is our view such innovation in agriculture must be encouraged by the federal government, rather than stifled with new, top-down federal policies and regulations which create uncertainty for irrigated farms and ranches in the rural West.”

National and state hunting and fishing groups have also expressed concerns the new regulations will alienate sportsmen, who are some of the top users and funders of the wildlife refuge system through federal license purchases.

Melissa Anderson is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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