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USFWS Closes Popular Missouri Refuge to Duck Hunting

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USFWS Closes Popular Missouri Refuge to Duck Hunting

Posted 2023-07-06  by  Brian Lovett

Refuge officials say the closure is temporary, and being caused by a high workload and staff shortages

Image: ImageBy_James_Chen_waterfowl_flock_Swan_Lake_NWR

Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge typically saw about 1,500 duck hunting visits per season. Photo by James Chen

Hunters who hoped to chase ducks and geese at a popular Missouri national wildlife refuge this fall will likely have to look elsewhere.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced it had suspended the waterfowl hunting program at Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, near Sumner, Missouri, citing increased workload and staffing shortages as the culprits.

“It is a temporary suspension,” said Steve Whitson, refuge manager. “We are going to be down to one full-time staff person come mid-July. In addition, we have some very large projects going on and just having to downsize to make thing manageable. Due to staffing shortages, we have cut back the bulk of our visitor services activities for the past five to six years, so the waterfowl hunting is one of the last to go.”

Whitson said he currently has one employee at the refuge, but that person accepted a higher-graded position in the USFWS’ Southeast Region, and the agency is not back-filling the opening right now.

“At one point in the early 2000s, there were eight FWS staff here and another four with Missouri Department of Conservation that managed parts of the refuge through an agreement,” he said. “Eventually, MDC pulled out, and FWS staff either moved or retired, which saw a steady decline in staffing over the years as positions were not back-filled.”

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News of the closure spread quickly among waterfowlers, and at least one conservation group expressed concern.

“Our members depend on quality public recreation areas like Swan Lake to continue their rich outdoor traditions,” the Missouri chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said in a June 14 online post. “Accordingly, upon recent news of the Swan Lake hunting program closure, our members expressed immediate concern about the impacts that this decision could have on outdoor families in the region. From follow-up conversations with the refuge manager as well as several local retired wildlife management staff members in the area, we have learned that this decision was driven primarily due to a lack of critical resources needed to maintain both visitor use and quality wildlife habitat on the refuge … .”

The group said it would try to work with the USFWS and to help restore hunting access by fall.

Swan Lake’s hunting program featured units with blinds and other areas deemed wade-and-shoot units. Hunters drew units through an online lottery with a third-party vendor. The refuge typically saw about 1,500 hunt visits per season, Whitson said.

Swan Lake’s hunting plan was developed in 2012, a USFWS press release said. At that time, staffing and workloads were at levels that allowed the program to be added without negatively affecting the refuge’s mission.

“Since that time, staff numbers on the refuge have been reduced, and there has been an increase in upcoming management and restoration projects,” the release said. “These include a redesign of about 80% of the refuge water management infrastructure and the construction of a new office/visitor contact station.”

Whitson said the hunting program will likely resume in the future, but officials aren’t sure when.

“We will periodically re-evaluate our public hunting programs and keep the public informed as things progress,” the release said. “Our managed deer, conservation-order light goose, squirrel and dove hunting programs will continue as they have in the past.”

Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge covers about 10,795 acres and was established in 1937. Located in Chariton County, Missouri, it’s near the confluence of the Grand and Missouri rivers. The refuge focuses on wetland habitat management and is also managed for other migratory birds, including ducks, geese, shorebirds and neotropical birds.

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