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The Virtues of Hunting on National Wildlife Refuges

Four of the Best Hunting Days of My Life

  • Mike Leahy
  • Sep 22, 2021

“The sweetest hunts are stolen. To steal a hunt, either go far into the wilderness where no one has ever been, or else find some undiscovered place under everybody’s nose.”
-Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

The signs said “Public Hunting Area” so we pulled over and hiked in. What followed, somewhat unexpectedly, were four of the best hunting days of my life. Not because I put lots of meat in the cooler, which I didn’t, being somewhat limited by my licenses, my ineptitude, and an ill-timed breeze. But we walked from horizon to horizon, chased animals large and small, slept soundly in the truck, saw hardly any other souls, and left most of the landscape unexplored for future trips.

Monotony, not normally one of my favorite words, took on the luster of “epic”. Wake, snack, stalk; brunch, doze, chase; lunch, stalk; drink, cook, drink; sleep.

To be more expansive about it, each morning we stalked deer while sharp-tailed grouse clucked and whirred all around us. Mid-morning we cooked brunch, nodded off in the folding chairs, then took the dog and our shotguns for long walks in search of the grouse that were previously so prevalent — and the occasional rabbit. A quick lunch back at the truck before a dusk stalk followed by beer, tailgate gourmet, and a nightcap. We slept well in the back of the pickup with the giant but surprisingly good at hunting dog between us. We earned every beer and every bite and so, while our meals and drinks were also monotonously similar, they tasted epic.

We saw four hunting rigs in four days, all hunting the road or the ranch next door. We saw some ranchers, old farm implements, and crazy rock formations. And we saw white-tail deer, which surprised me in a selfishly pleasant way because this was mule deer country and a whitetail license was all I managed to get (my friend, a resident, was better blessed in the license department). Hunting those white-tails was nothing like hunting them in the woods and fields of Maryland where I live. It was a lot like hunting antelope — long sneaks and long shots on wary fleet-footed quarry. They mostly hung out in the middle of vast treeless valleys and we had to follow the terrain and the longest grass to get anywhere close.

hunting with dog in grasslands

President Theodore Roosevelt declared Florida’s Pelican Island as the first national wildlife refuge in the United States in 1903. Today, the National Wildlife Refuge System manages over 150 million acres of lands and waters.

My longest stalk — maybe of my life — was almost two hours through grass and prickly pears — it would have been shorter if my friend would’ve lent me one of his knee-pads — and it only brought us to 200 yards from three white-tails before the grass grew too short to get closer. 200 yards is not a long shot for many hunters but I’m more of a 100 yard guy so this would be the longest shot at a living being I had ever taken. I therefore took a rather long time lining it up and five seconds before I pulled the trigger a slight breeze blew over our sweaty backs and apparently straight into the deer’s nostrils for they were gone. But I got my best lesson yet on scent, something I used to pooh-pooh.

These experiences were all courtesy of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The same system militants targeted when they took over the Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon — also renowned for hunting, and birdwatching.

The militants were trying to trigger a massive transfer of public lands to private owners. But take these lands away from the public and monotony goes back to being a boring word for all but the wealthiest Americans — the monotony of commuting, watching sitcoms, mowing the lawn — not of hunts so large and affordable they go on for days. I don’t know what the four day hunt we had would cost on private lands but I know I couldn’t afford it, and could never buy the freedom and experiences we had.

glassing for animals with dog in grasslands

Access to public lands means access to opportunities like this. Ensuring our public lands, such as National Wildlife Refuges, remain in the public domain is essential if we hope to pass these opportunities to our children. Join Mike Leahy and other hunters and anglers and help spread the word.

Fortunately the militants miscalculated terribly, and the backlash against giving away our national lands has been powerful. Presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat Members of Congress, dozens of hunting and fishing and shooting groups, and plenty of regular Americans have felt compelled to speak out in support of keeping national lands in public ownership.

Thankfully we still have access to a lot of public lands to hunt and fish and enjoy. Including over 300 National Wildlife Refuges and protected wetlands around the country. And new hunting and fishing opportunities on refuges are being created at a record clip in recently — thanks to leaders at the US Fish and Wildlife Service who oversee the Refuge System and have made hunting and fishing a priority.

Most refuges don’t offer the scale of the experiences I had, but many offer unmatched opportunities in the context of their landscape — unique places like the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, or rare urban opportunities like the Detroit River National Wildlife Refuge.

During National Wildlife Refuge Week (October 10-16, 2021) — we owe a serious thanks to the refuge managers and US Fish and Wildlife Service staff who maintain and defend these spectacular wildlife habitats and the wildlife that depend on them, while providing a whole lot of human enjoyment and opportunity.

And if sportsmen and women want public hunting areas, like the one I stumbled upon, to remain open and available for everyone we need to let political leaders and candidates know that we want public lands to remain in public hands.

Join me, pledge to protect our public lands and ask our political leaders to do the same.

Mike Leahy is the Director of Wildlife, Hunting, and Fishing Policy for the National Wildlife Federation. Mike has most of his outdoor fun on public lands of one sort or another, big or small, federal or state, east or west. He’s been working on conservation for a range of wildlife and habitat focused groups for a couple decades now.

From all of us at NWF Outdoors: We are working hard to make sure our elected officials and candidates know that protecting public lands is a priority for hunters and anglers across the country. You can help spread the word by sharing this blog. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Listen to our podcast and sign up for our newsletter at National Wildlife Federation Outdoors.

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The Great American Outdoors Act will fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund while investing in a backlog of public land maintenance, providing current and future generations the outdoor recreation opportunities like boat launches to access fishable waters, shooting ranges, and public lands to hunt as well as the economic stimulus we need right now. 

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