In the state of Illinois, finding a good public hunting spot is about as easy as finding a 30-point buck with a birthmark shaped like a target. Not that the Land of Lincoln is a hunters' wasteland — the state boasts some of the finest whitetail hunting in the Midwest — but given much of the land is privately owned, land access is slim, depending on who you know.
For those situations it's good to have public land nearby, a place where hunters can gather regardless of who owns that particular piece of dirt and try to put some meat in the freezer.
So for a lifestyle already hurting from sweeping budget cuts in years past, blocking access to those public areas is proving problematic to hunters across the nation.
Last week, our sister magazine, WILDFOWL, reported the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had suspended all operations after the government officially shut down Oct. 1. The suspension means all 561 National Refuges across the nation — about 150 million acres of public land — are closed to hunters, anglers and tourists, barring any sort of activity on these lands — e.g., hunting, fishing, camping and hiking are all prohibited until further notice.
"In these times of ever-dwindling access, losing any public ground opportunity due to political infighting is painful, especially since it is largely hunter's dollars that fund so much of this habitat management through the federal duck stamp program and monies from the Pittman-Robertson Act, among many other programs," WILDFOWL Editor Skip Knowles said.
The closure could mean a huge economic loss. A 2011 USFWS survey reported about 90 million people — roughly 38 percent of American adults — participate in some outdoor activity. About half of them do so on public land. In 2011 alone, outdoorsmen and women spent about $145 billion.
A report from The Huffington Post said that federal workers have been furloughed, and some 40,000 volunteers who normally provide about 700 full-time staff hours every year are also prohibited from entering these lands.
"I think Congress's failure to act is really a slap in the face to all of us in this country, but particularly to hunters and anglers," Dr. Steve Williams, the president of the Wildlife Management Institute and a former director of the USFWS, told The Huffington Post. Williams said that federal and state agencies bring in about $1.5 billion from license fees alone.
Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation, said while the shutdown may affect some hunters in the West — elk hunters in Utah and Oregon, for example, will find familiar refuges closed — hunters east of the Rockies, where land access is already scarce, will be hit even harder.
"I think Eastern hunters are affected a little more directly because you don't have much public land, so a lot of people hunt the refuges and some of the federal lands back there in the Midwest and the East, whereas back West we're kind of spoiled with all the public land, but where we're finding ourselves is maybe not being able to get to our favorite hunting place or campground, or there may be a road or a trail that's been blocked off," Moretti said. "Across the landscape, it's not as concentrated. But trust me, if you've driven 300-500 miles to go to your favorite hunting place, you get there and you can't get [in], it's an impact."
Moretti said the shutdown has prohibited members from carrying out habitat projects in national parks and refuges where the MDF usually works to improve habitats. While these projects won't have an immediate effect, those areas could suffer long-term ramifications should the projects be canceled altogether.
"With the droughts, fires and some of the things we've had in the West, we've been aggressively trying to get some of those areas rehabilitated so that we can get some good foliage back in there, stop some flooding from rains ... and we may not just get some of that seed in the ground this year and get some of those projects done," Moretti said. "It's just going to put us behind, and so next spring you're going to have weeds coming in ... and you not get some of that vegetation back."
Moretti said those areas in the West closed off to hunting shouldn't see an increase in overpopulation or disease. In the East, however, crowding could become a concern.
"Basically, the animals are going to get a little bit of a rest because a lot of the West, for things like mule deer, they're on a limited quota," Moretti said. "So not harvesting a few bucks or bulls is probably not going to hurt the population in that way, whereas if you were back East and you needed to ... get rid of some animals on some of those refuges, that's where I see it being a concern. There, crowding could be an issue. If there's chronic wasting disease in the area, you could tend to concentrate those animals a little bit."
What's more frustrating, Moretti said, is the lack of information regarding closures coming from any federal agencies. Because the USFWS has suspended all operations, its website instead redirects to the U.S. Department of the Interior, providing hunters with little assistance or information at the federal level.
"You call any government office or your congressional office, and generally you're getting a message that says, 'Sorry, due to the shutdown, we're not able to take your call,'" Moretti said. "You can't even find out if an area's open or not."
In addition, businesses throughout the country that usually benefit from hunting season — gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants, for example — could feel the effect once hunting season starts, if it hasn't already in that particular area.
"Hunting season, for them, is their Christmas. That's where they make it," Moretti said. "And if hunters are either staying home ... or hearing that they can't get to their favorite place, they're not going to be out there spending those dollars and helping those rural economies."
The biggest loss, Moretti said, is one that can't be measured by any statistics or scientific measure. Rather, the sheer joy and excitement felt in the field — whether it's a first-timer or a lifelong hunter — is something that can't be replaced, and is arguably the biggest gut check for any hunter, young or old.
"Those are the things you just can't measure in this, the heartache and disappointment a lot of people that wait once a lifetime to draw a tag and maybe can't get into that unit or some other disruption," Moretti said. "Those are the kind of things that really are frustrating, and they're not measurable. They're not sexy enough to make the news, but boy, I'm hearing a lot of those kinds of stories."