BISMARCK - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to reopen more than 288,000 acres of wildlife lands in North Dakota that have been closed to public access since the federal government shutdown began on Oct. 1.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe announced the reopening of Wildlife Service lands nationwide late today after he was informed of North Dakota's intent to file a complaint in U.S. District Court. The complaint, already completed and within minutes of being filed, requested a federal judge require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reopen more than 288,000 acres of wildlife lands closed to hunters and other public uses.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, in talks with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, said they were prepared to file the complaint at 3 p.m. today. Just minutes before 3 p.m., U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said they would reopen the wildlife lands nationwide.
"These Waterfowl Production Areas are an important part of North Dakota's outdoor experience and the law is very clear that a government shutdown is not a legal justification to close these unstaffed, public lands," Gov. Dalrymple said. "We are pleased that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to reopen these lands in time for North Dakota's opening day of pheasant hunting.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service's attempt to prohibit access to the wide outdoors was clearly contrary to law, which assures these areas are to be open to hunters and anglers," Stenehjem said. "I am delighted that Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to end the confusion, and to allow our sportsmen to enjoy a successful hunting season."
In the complaint, Dalrymple and Stenehjem said the closures are unnecessary and unwarranted because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not, under normal conditions, maintain full-time staff on the lands and because there are no additional public safety or management issues created by keeping the lands open. Dalrymple and Stenehjem said the law allows closure only in exceptional circumstances, none of which are present.
On Tuesday, the state also sent a letter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, voicing the same arguments in urging him to reopen the state's Waterfowl Production Areas.