RONAN — While politicians point fingers in Washington during the ongoing budget stalemate, another group of Americans is being increasingly affected by the partial government shutdown.
As we go deeper into fall and more and more seasons open, hunters are discovering they aren’t allowed on federal lands where they’ve hunted in the past – lands administered by agencies that are not currently being funded by Congress and are closed to the public during the budget impasse.
The effects ratchet up in Montana this weekend, with the start of pheasant and the general antelope seasons on Saturday.
In the Ninepipe area here on the Flathead Indian Reservation, pheasant hunters will be expected to avoid nine separate Waterfowl Production Areas totaling 3,268 acres that are administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“It’s a total pain for everybody,” said Dan Bailey of Missoula, Montana representative for Pheasants Forever. “That Ninepipe area is, without a doubt, the best ground we have in western Montana. It draws a lot of hunters from Missoula to Kalispell.”
Lands administered by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, that are normally open for pheasant hunting in the Ninepipe area still will be come Saturday.
Tom McDonald, division manager for CSKT’s Fish, Wildlife, Conservation and Recreation Program, said the vast majority of pheasant hunting around Ninepipe is already done on state, tribal and private land.
But what’s what “is pretty checkerboard-ed,” according to federal wildlife officer Mike Koole.
Koole, one of the federal government employees who has been furloughed but is working without pay, said he has put up closed notices at entrances to the nine places that already have Waterfowl Production Area signage, to help alert hunters as to what’s off-limits as long as the shutdown is in effect.
He’ll also be patrolling the area this weekend, as will state and tribal game wardens.
Koole said the Fish and Wildlife Service has advised federal officers to “use their best discretion” in dealing with any trespassers they encounter during the shutdown and closure of the public lands. The closures apply to everyone, not just hunters.
“The Service is very understanding of the situation, and how difficult it is for hunters, and the officers who are supposed to enforce the closure,” Koole said. “Every situation is different,” and decisions on whether to issue citations will be decided on a case-by-case basis.
The closure hurts, Bailey says, because “Private land is getting harder and harder for hunters to gain access to. I feel bad for bird hunters but they’re a resourceful group. They’ll figure out a way to get their pheasant.”
Both Koole and McDonald note hunters can obtain a free map at the CSKT Natural Resources Department in Polson, or from many stores in the region that sell hunting and fishing licenses, that can help them identify federal, state, tribal and private lands in the Ninepipe area.
Bailey said he drove the area earlier this week, and the off-limit FWS lands “are pretty well marked.”
Hunting is never allowed on the three national wildlife refuges – the Bison Range, Ninepipe and Pablo – located on the reservation, administered by FWS and also closed to the public by the Washington gridlock.
Montana’s general antelope season also opens Saturday. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said the agency is fielding many calls from hunters wanting to know how the partial federal shutdown will affect them.
“We don’t know,” Aasheim says. “The word we get is they (federal lands) are closed. But there’s nobody to ask, is the problem.”
Most federal employees in the agencies with the answers have been furloughed, and any attempt to access websites, from the National Park Service to the FWS, are fruitless – you’re re-directed to the Department of Interior home page, where you’re not likely to locate the local information you’re seeking.
When it comes to antelope, you’re not just talking about land administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, Aasheim notes.
“There’s also a lot of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land involved,” Aasheim says.
Also affected are some hunters with archery permits to hunt elk on the Missouri Breaks this fall. FWP issued 4,700 of the much-sought permits in July; the season opened on Sept. 7 and runs through Oct. 20.
But anyone who hadn’t filled their tag before Oct. 1 has presumably been barred since from hunting elk on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge – by far the most popular area for the archery hunters, according to Aasheim.
Because there are still state and private lands where they can go, hunters who haven’t gotten their elk, and now can’t legally access the refuge, can’t get refunds from the state. Those aren’t given unless there are no other hunting opportunities available.
Pheasant season is the final upland game bird fall season to start – the others all opened in September, and were affected beginning Oct. 1.
Should the partial federal shutdown drag on into late October, it will affect where hunters can go in search of deer, elk and mountain lion too.
The general season for deer and elk, and the fall season for mountain lion, all open on Oct. 26.