Coulee Region bird hunters may be venturing into uncharted waters when waterfowl season reopens this weekend.
As a result of the federal government shutdown, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has closed its 561 refuges — including the Upper Mississippi National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, the most frequently visited.
But how do you close a 240,000-acre refuge that stretches along more than 260 miles of the Mississippi River through four states?
“Most of their lands have a fence around them,” said John Wetzel, secretary of the La Crosse County Conservation Alliance. “That makes sense, but it doesn’t apply to the river.”
Despite difficulty receiving guidance from the shuttered federal agency, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is advising hunters that waters — including the Mississippi River — are open for recreational activities like hunting, so long as users enter legally through a state or private boat launch.
“Basically, when it comes to waterfowl hunting, it is business as usual,” DNR chief warden Randy Stark said in a news release. “The only difference is that access points to federal properties are closed.”
But definitive answers are difficult to come by with some 800,000 federal workers on furlough.
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Fish and Wildlife boat landings are barricaded, and refuge lands are officially off limits. How the rules affect waters are less clear.
“We are looking for an interpretation on the waters right now,” said Chuck Traxler, assistant regional director of external affairs and one of the few Fish and Wildlife employees answering his phone Monday. “It’s not clear right now.”
The DNR has a different interpretation.
In an internal email, DNR chief legal counsel Tim Andryk wrote that while the Fish and Wildlife Service has the authority to close their facilities and boat landings, “they cannot close the river to fishing and hunting, and federal officers who cite people for that risk personal liability in state court for violating the state constitutional right to hunt and hunter interference law.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to issue a definitive answer by the weekend, if not something better.
“Ultimately we hope that we’re open on Saturday,” Traxler said.
While urging people to respect the posted closings, Wetzel predicted hunters will not likely face problems.
“People are going to go out, go to their favorite spot and hunt,” he said. “I would think they would be crazy to try to kick people off.”