October 11, 2013

Government shutdown complicates deer hunting season at Mojave National Preserve

Piute Gorge. The closure of federal lands will put a damper on the opening of deer hunting season atthe Mojave National Preserve. / Mojave National Preserve

Written by Denise Goolsby
The Desert Sun

The government shutdown-induced closure of all federal lands — including national parks — is going to put a damper on Saturday’s opening of deer hunting season, when scores of hunters will be turned away at the gates of the Mojave National Preserve.

Compounding the situation is that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife — which regulates hunting, fishing and other game-related activities in the state — allows hunting in state wildlife areas but must enforce the federal government’s closure of national parks and Bureau of Land Management territory — where hunting is normally permitted.

“If people are hunting, they are subject to a citation,” Andrew Hughan, California Department of Fish and Wildlife public information officer said Friday.

But there’s been confusion throughout the week as to what, if any, federal lands would be open to hunters on Saturday.

The shutdown has made it difficult for state and federal agencies to communicate, and local officials are working to clarify conflicting information.

“Mojave National Preserve is closed to all recreational use, including hunting,” said Linda Slater, the preserve’s public information officer. “Our rangers are going to use an educational and informational approach to work with hunters to help them understand the situation.”

The southern boundary of the sprawling, 1.6 million-acre preserve is north of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms in San Bernardino County, just north of the Interstate 40 freeway, is about a 90-minute drive from Palm Springs. The preserve was established in 1994 with the passage of the California Desert Protection Act by Congress and is part of the national park system.

“Mojave National Preserve is arguably the most popular location for hunters in Southern California,” said David Lamfrom, senior California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

But those who purchased hunting licenses and “tags” — required for the taking of certain big game animals, including deer — might not realize they can’t enter the grounds.

The preserve has multiple access points, a situation that creates a “high potential for conflict with law enforcement,” if disgruntled hunters decide to ignore the closure, he said.

“It’s public land,” Lamfrom said. “It’s going to be another example of a portfolio of people not being served. They miss the opportunity to do the things they love to do or want to do.”

“We share everyone’s disappointment that the National Park Service is shutdown,” said Slater, who happens to be on furlough but is handling media inquiries. “We look forward to getting back open as soon as we can.”

The preserve is the third largest park in the lower 48 states. Only Death Valley National Park (3.4 million acres) and Yellowstone National Park (2.2 million acres) are larger.

Dennis Schramm, who retired as Mojave National Preserve superintendent in 2010, worked at the preserve during the previous government shutdown for several weeks in 1995 and 1996.

A couple of hundred hunters, many who’ve been coming since the preserve opened, look forward to the first weekend of deer hunting, he said.

“Opening day of rifle season for deer hunting is a big deal,” Schramm said. “They go to the same spots every year. The group campsites get filled up.”

He said thinly stretched preserve employees — only essential personnel are still working while most of their colleagues are furloughed — could face some angry hunters who might choose to bypass the barriers.

“It’s a major concern,” Schramm said. “If they don’t resolve this ... it’s going to catch people off guard. Hunters are going to show up there and not be very happy. It’s going to be a very difficult impact for park staff.”

“Nothing about this situation is easy,” Schramm said. “It is difficult for the park staff to implement the closures, and equally difficult for the public to understand why they can’t just visit the parks anyway.”

Schramm, who was traveling with family through Durango, Colo. during this interview, had plans to visit some of the state’s national parks during the weeklong trip — including a visit to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

“All the things we planned on doing this week, we can’t do,” he said.

Lamfrom said the fallout is going to be felt by gateway communities that provide goods and services for hunters and campers coming in and out of the preserve.

“The shutdown of the federal government has created countless unexpected and unnecessary impacts to the National Parks in the California desert, and on the communities that rely heavily on them for their economic well-being,” he said.

How long the shutdown lasts is anyone’s guess, he said.

“We’re all in denial,” Lamfrom said. “We thought it would be over the day after the government shut down. There are economic impacts that are radiating. Look how deeply connected all these economic systems are.”

When open for business, the three California desert national parks sites – Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park – combined, welcome more than 6,500 visitors a day in October. The three parks collectively infuse more than $230,000 a day into local communities.