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Mixed reaction to plans for hunting
Draft is readied for two refuges
By Matt McDonald, Globe Correspondent | August 15, 2004

The US Fish and Wildlife Service's plan to allow hunting at two regional nature refuges pleases hunters but upsets critics worried about public safety and the effect on wildlife.

A draft management plan nearing final approval calls for allowing hunting of deer, turkey, woodcock, ruffed grouse, squirrels, and rabbits at Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, which includes portions of Sudbury, Stow, Maynard, and Hudson. Hunting of ducks, geese, and deer would be allowed in portions of Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge that are in Sudbury and Wayland.

Currently, hunting is not allowed at either refuge. The Assabet River refuge is not open to the public, although federal officials are hoping to open it by Oct. 1.

Hunting, though, would not be allowed until the state hunting season during the fall of 2005 at the earliest, said Libby Herland, manager of the federal wildlife refuge complex that includes Assabet River and Great Meadows.

Herland noted that hunting is one of six priority public uses in the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997. The others are fishing, wildlife observation, wildlife photography, environmental education, and interpretation, which means providing explanatory information through kiosks and brochures.

"We've been directed by Congress to facilitate hunting opportunities where it's compatible with the mission of the refuge," Herland said.

Whether hunting is compatible with the local refuges is a matter of debate.

Hunters like Brian Carpenter, who plans to hunt deer with bow and arrow on the refuges, say it is.

"That land is for everyone to enjoy. All the hunting community wants is to use that property for hunting during the legal hunting season in the state," said Carpenter, a Woburn resident and founder of Suburban White Tail Association, which represents deer hunters seeking permission to hunt on privately owned land.

But some critics, noting that near the federal refuges are homes and town conservation parcels that draw walkers, worry about public safety.

"For recreational hunting, I don't think this is the place for it," said Barbara Howell, a member of the Wayland Conservation Commission.

Worries about safety are overblown, said Dave Youngsman, a Framingham resident who plans to hunt ducks, geese, and ruffed grouse if the Assabet River and Great Meadows refuges are opened to hunting.

He noted that state law restricts discharging a weapon near occupied buildings or roadways, and that hunters go through safety training courses before they can get a permit.

"People in these suburbs hear the word 'gun' and they have a concern because of what they see on TV or on the news," Youngsman said. "But the majority of hunters are going to act responsibly because they've been trained to do so."

Some critics also worry about the effect on wildlife. Sudbury conservation coordinator Debbie Dineen argues that hunting should not be allowed without population studies first being done at each refuge. As an example, she said, volunteer trackers at the refuges already find few woodcock
"If the overall mission of the refuge is wildlife conservation, without specific, long-term, detailed studies how can a compatibility determination be made? In simpler terms, how do you know if you are doing harm to the population when you don't know what the size of the population is?" Dineen wrote in a letter last month to the Fish and Wildlife Service during a recent public comment period that ended July 21.


But Herland argued such population studies on individual refuges are unnecessary because the state already tracks the numbers of animals that would be hunted. State officials have found that populations are remaining strong, she said.

Youngsman contends that hunters can take credit for the strength of certain species, because for years they have supported measures to acquire and maintain wetlands and other habitats with their volunteer efforts and also the fees and taxes they pay to hunt.

"Sportsmen have historically been conservation leaders across the United States, because they care," Youngsman said.

Herland said a similar plan to allow hunting at a federal wildlife refuge in New Jersey she used to manage also drew strong opposition, but generated few complaints once hunting was actually allowed there.

"I'm really confident that this is going to work out. I know that we can offer hunting and do it in a safe manner. I'm confident of that," Herland said.

The issue has split the approximately 150 members of a group called Friends of the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, said president Barbara Volkle. Some members philosophically oppose hunting, some support it, and some have practical concerns about public safety and the effect on wildlife.

The organization has not taken a formal position on whether hunting should be allowed, but its members tend to be skeptical of the plan, Volkle said.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials are planning to meet tonight with an affiliated group called Assabet Keeping Track, which consists of volunteers who track animals on the refuge. Federal officials also plan to meet with Volkle's group later this month.

Herland acknowledged that she has heard that some volunteers may dissociate themselves from efforts to assist refuge officials if hunting is allowed.

"I can understand that and respect that, but I'm saddened by it," Herland said.

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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