How Will the Government Shutdown Impact Hunting and Fishing?

by Braxton Taylor

Hunters and anglers might not feel the effects of a government shutdown as quickly as those traveling by air, seeking a new passport or federal permit, or trying to enter a national park, but the impacts would still be significant.

At midnight Saturday when the fiscal year ends, the federal government will almost certainly cease all nonessential activity and will, for many intents and purposes, shut down.

If this happens—which it almost certainly will—it will have been for a variety of reasons, but the most important thing is that it’s happening, and now we as citizens, as constituents, and as hunters and anglers, will start to feel the effects.

What is a Shutdown and Why Does it Happen?

Congress funds a large portion of the federal government on an annual basis through a series of twelve appropriations bills. October 1 until September 30 the following year is considered the federal “fiscal year,” so the end of fiscal year 2023 comes on Saturday and, technically, fiscal year 2024 will start on Sunday. When Congress doesn’t pass (and the President doesn’t sign) a bill appropriating money in the next fiscal year before the current fiscal year expires, then the government shuts down. That’s what’s happening here.

Congress has not funded the government ‘on time’ since 1996, but there have only been two shutdowns in recent memory: one in October 2013 and another that began in December 2018 and ended in January 2019. However, every other year Congress has relied on one or more continuing resolutions to fund the government until a year-long funding agreement could be struck.

When this happens, several thousand federal employees are furloughed without pay, and any other activities that rely on annual, appropriated dollars come to a halt. Some folks, including several classes of “exempted employees” and emergency personnel, will be asked to report to work without pay in the coming weeks. Government contractors will be sent home without pay, and almost certainly won’t receive any back pay.

Government shutdowns are almost universally hated. They’re bad for our nation’s credit rating. They’re frustrating for federal employees and contractors. And they’re disruptive for us as citizens. Plus, they’re generally poor politics.

It’s the constitutional right, and some would say responsibility, of Congress to fund the government every year. The Constitution states that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” And of course, Congress writes the law.

What Does it Mean for my Hunting Trip Next Week?

Unless you need to interact with a federal employee, your hunt can and should go on. If you need to pay a fee or sign in with an agent to access federal lands or waters to hunt, it might be a different story. If you’re hunting on private land, or public land that is not managed by the federal government (like a state game area), you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

Thankfully, we don’t have to check in with someone when hunting on most National Forest or BLM land. But some hunters (typically waterfowl) do have to interact with federal personnel when hunting on some National Wildlife Refuge System lands. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s September 2023 Contingency Plan:

“In the absence of appropriations, FWS must close refuge units unless and until it is able to determine that allowing particular areas to be reopened or limited activities to resume will not cause it to expend or obligate funds…where public access to refuge lands does not require the presence of a Federal employee or contractor, activities on refuge lands will be allowed to continue…”

It’s unclear how big of a problem this might be, but it’s worth checking your local refuge’s website or social media before you go. You can try to call, but there probably won’t be anybody there to answer the phones. Waterfowl Production Areas will remain open, as they aren’t typically staffed.

Post offices will remain open too, so even those of us committed to getting a physical Duck Stamp can still do so this week. The U.S. Postal Service is funded through the sale of products like stamps and postage, rather than annual appropriations.

And of course, hunting isn’t allowed in most national parks, but these public lands have been in the spotlight during the last two shutdowns. The Department of Interior announced Friday ahead of the shutdown that all national parks will be closed this time around. That press release states: “In the event of a lapse in annual government appropriations, National Park Service (NPS) sites will be closed. This means that the majority of national parks will be closed completely to public access. Areas that, by their nature, are physically accessible to the public will face significantly reduced visitor services.”

This comes despite Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) sending a letter requesting Interior Secretary Haaland use permit and entrance fees to keep the parks open during this time.

In the meantime, I know at least a few federal employees have expressed some excitement at having a little more free time as archery, upland, and waterfowl seasons open across the country.

What Does a Shutdown Mean for Public Land Habitat in the Next Year?

In short, our public and private lands benefit from substantial, ongoing support from the federal government, and any lapse in that management will affect wildlife and hunters.

While impacts to hunters and anglers immediately will be relatively minimal, long-term ripple effects for stewardship work on Forest Service and BLM lands could be intense. Further, landowners won’t be able to enroll in new private land conservation programs during a shutdown, though the same folks will continue to be paid if they’re already signed up.

Contracting and grant issues will start being impacted next week, and while contracts awarded before a shutdown may continue, there could be delays in payment and no new contracts will be issued or grants awarded. In practice, this means that the work could stop until payments can be issued, which is a problem because many of these contracts and grants facilitate a huge amount of real work being done on our public lands. And, unfortunately, these stewardship projects to improve wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities will start to grind to a halt next week. Once these projects stop, and the backlog gets longer, they are difficult and time-consuming to restart.

Outside of land management, scientific research being done by federal agencies will be disrupted as institutions like the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will furlough most of their researchers.

How and When Will It End?

That is the million (more like $6 trillion) dollar question. The shutdown will end when Congress passes, and the president signs, legislation to fund the government. It could be a short-term funding patch that will last until later this calendar year, as the Senate proposed last week, or it could be a year-long funding bill.

It’s all about money, but of course, how we spend money is about far more than just dollars and cents. Just like a household budget, the federal government has a wide array of “needs” and “wants” to negotiate. Some values will prevail, while others will fall to the wayside, but they will all be on display.

As Joe Biden used to say in his days as a senator, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

We’re about to see just what the Congress and the President can agree to value. It could be over next week, or it could stretch on for months. Only time will tell.

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