The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comment through June 21 about a proposal to open Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge to waterfowl hunting.
At about 1,900 acres, the refuge sits 10 miles southwest of Laramie and was established in 1932 to provide a breeding ground and sanctuary for migratory birds and other wildlife. It’s one of several wildlife refuges in the Laramie Basin, along with Mortenson Lake and Bamforth, neither of which is open to the public.
According to the proposal, 748 acres would be open to hunting at Hutton Lake, including the lake itself, nearby Hoge Lake and surrounding uplands. That area includes 268 acres of wetlands, or about 55 percent of the refuge’s total wetlands. The hunting areas would be identified with boundary signs.
The lakes provide resting, nesting and foraging areas for migratory birds as they cross the semi-arid Laramie basin. The most abundant species include mallard, redhead, teal, pintail, great blue heron, black-crowned night heron, phalarope, western grebe, bittern and black tern.
The hunting season would follow the state’s general waterfowl hunting season and dates of the Wyoming Central Flyway Special Youth Waterfowl Hunting Days. Hunters would be required to use designated parking areas and access hunt areas on foot.
According to Tara Wertz, who manages the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge Complex, the directive to consider expanding hunting and fishing opportunities at refuges was suggested by the Department of the Interior last year. Wertz manages a group of refuges that includes the three in southeast Wyoming plus Pathfinder National Wildlife Refuge near Casper and Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge near Walden, Colorado.
“Hutton Lake was brought up (as a refuge) that might have some opportunities,” she said. “We developed a proposal to have a general season like that particular area of Wyoming has.”
An alternate proposal calls for opening the refuge just to youth hunters as a way to promote the sport to new participants.
Wertz said the National Refuge System is guided by six principles that shape its administration of public access, as they align with wildlife management goals: hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, photography, environmental education and interpretation.
“The entire refuge and hatchery system is mandated to provide those kinds of opportunities,” she said.
Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said in a news release that hunting and fishing are a vital component of conserving natural resources.
“These refuges and hatcheries provide incredible opportunities for sportsmen and women and their families across the country to pass on a fishing and hunting heritage to future generations and connect with wildlife,” he said.
Hutton Lake was created under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act with a primary purpose of supporting migratory birds. The act allows up to 40 percent of such lands to be opened to hunting of migratory birds.
Language in the refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan calls for considering new types of wildlife-dependent recreation when appropriate. When the plan was last revised, in 2007, the refuge was left closed to hunting because of a lack of administrative infrastructure and available hunting elsewhere. Hutton Lake is being considered now, according the proposal, because of easy public access, a nearby population center and significant waterfowl use.
Managers estimate about 3,600 people visited the refuge in 2018, but a car counter installed recently indicates that number could be much higher. Most visitation occurs in the spring, summer and fall, and the refuge is a popular spot for birding enthusiasts. The Laramie Audubon Society schedules regular outings to the refuge to watch migrating waterfowl.
“The majority of folks that go out there to enjoy the refuge go out to see the birds,” Wertz said. “This proposal is not without conflict.”
She said hunting would likely interfere with birding opportunities, though the refuge system is mandated to provide access for both.
“It’s a hard decision, and that’s why we’re asking for public comment, to see how the Laramie community views it,” she said.
The refuge’s two lakes are not appropriate for fishing, she said, because water rights are limited and fish can’t survive the winter.
The proposal also calls for building an accessible hunting blind and possibly installing a vault toilet. Wertz said the Fish and Wildlife Service would work cooperatively with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to manage enforcement.
Seventy-four refuges and 15 national fish hatcheries are included in the proposal to expand or introduce hunting and fishing. The proposal also aims to simplify refuge regulations and align them with state regulations.
The National Wildlife Refuge System currently includes 567 wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts.
Also in Wyoming, the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed opening Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge near Green River to hunting for elk and white-tail deer.