"Shelter or protection from danger" is how Webster's New World Dictionary defines the word refuge, and now comes the time to decide whether to abide by Webster's definition -- or one modified by modern wildlife management.
It's a controversial decision for federal authorities who manage more than 90 million acres or refuges, several of which are popular among outdoorsmen hereabouts. Some users want more access, including more hunting. Others want less public access and no hunting.
What lies ahead under a five-year management plan to carry through 1993, the 100th anniversary of the establishment of America's first national wildlife refuge by Teddy Roosevelt? No one knows at this time, but it's a situation that shouldn't be ignored.
The final decision can turn around waterfowl and deer hunting opportunity at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and deer hunting at both Blackwater and Eastern Neck Island National Wildlife refuges. Maybe that will prompt some to write the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as 33,000 have already done.
As might be expected, the biggest issue concerns hunting. In the hearing process, the pros easily overwhelmed the antis. In single issue responses, 6,820 respondents supported hunting, trapping and fishing on refuges as against 723 in opposition.
That's encouraging, but the management plan is just now being considered, and if you care to be on the mailing list covering the process as it proceeds, write Refuges 2003 Planning Team, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mail Stop-670 ARLSQ, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20240.
In the beginning, refuges were just what the dictionary implies -- complete sanctuary for wildlife within. Refuges were considered a haven where wildlife could thrive undisturbed by man and his way of life. Until the past several decades, game management thinking was that refuges would serve as propagation areas where wildlife would reproduce and overflow to stock surrounding lands.
Many state refuges were established in Maryland under this way of thinking, but it didn't work out. Eventually, all but a few nooks in a few state refuges became wildlife management areas where hunting is allowed. The feds have been less lenient, but have opened many areas to hunting.
Foremost among the incentives to open these lands has been the problems wildlife has created for itself in a trouble-free environment, that became just the opposite. As wildlife numbers increased so did overbrowsing -- hungry wild creatures literally eating themselves out of house and home.
Not only do they suffer the consequences, but so does other wildlife that depends on the same habitat for food and cover. Thus, many refuges were opened -- sometimes after lengthy legal entanglements -- to hunting as a means of controlling populations.
Contrary to the thinking of many, hunting on refuges is not a wide-open affair with animals and birds slaughtered left and right. Strict controls are imposed, such as the tight bag limits and hunting day schedule at Bombay Hook where snow geese are eating up marshes so important to other waterfowl -- especially the troubled black duck.
One should have seen the Eastern Neck refuge before deer hunting commenced there nearly 25 years ago. Leaves were stripped from trees, bushes were grazed to the ground, and mast so important to squirrels and other small game was eaten by hungry deer as soon as it fell to the ground.
It was a barren wilderness. I know, I was there.
Hunting should not be an issue. It shouldn't occur on a refuge unless it is needed. Give the resident wildlife a break, but when management decisions dictate a harvest to keep populations in control, who better than those who manage the areas should determine when and how it should be done?
Of the eight management plans, one would completely eliminate all hunting, also all trapping even though this is an important management technique to thwart the appetites of muskrats, nutria and such that can devour a marsh.
Current policies allow these and other uses on 85 million acres of refuges, and it seems to be doing the job. So why change?