Most of Colorado’s refuges and its two fish hatcheries already permit some level of hunting or fishing. Three refuges in close proximity to Denver do not: Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and Two Ponds National Wildlife Refuge.
Two Ponds, a 72-acre urban refuge merely six blocks from the Arvada Center for the Arts, isn’t a logical candidate for hunting because of its location.
Neither is Rocky Flats, according to David Abelson, who leads the Rocky Flats Stewardship Council. At the group's quarterly meeting on September 13, councilmember Nancy Ford, who represents Arvada, asked whether U.S. Fish and Wildlife might eventually allow hunting at Rocky Flats, a former nuclear weapons plant that, after a $7 billion cleanup, reopened most of its remediated land to the public as a 5,237-acre wildlife refuge three years ago.
“I just cannot envision it,” says Abelson, citing traffic and residences close to Rocky Flats. Directly south of the refuge is Candelas, a growing residential community, and he suggests that the possibility of a deer hunter's shot ending up in someone’s backyard isn't too far-fetched.
He does not mention contamination.
Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which was once a U.S. Army chemical weapons manufacturing facility, became a wildlife refuge in 1992. The cleanup of the refuge's 15,000 acres was completed in 2010. Catch-and-release fishing is allowed at the refuge, but the fish can't be kept for human consumption.
David Havlick, department chair of geography and environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, has studied how contaminated sites are restored and transformed into wildlife refuges. He notes that turning both the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Rocky Flats into wildlife refuges was controversial, and proposing hunting on either would only cause more controversy.
Wes McKinley, a Colorado rancher who was the foreman of the Rocky Flats Grand Jury that investigated alleged environmental crimes at the plant three decades ago, puts it a different way. "It should not be open until about 27,000 years from now," he declares, citing one estimate of the half-life of plutonium.
As for the possibility of hunting at either the Rocky Mountain Arsenal or Rocky Flats, McKinley offers a choice of words: "Unadvisable, stupid, unacceptable, idiotic."
Some formerly contaminated refuges do allow hunting and fishing, including Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, a one-time bombing range for the U.S. Army in Indiana. The danger at Big Oaks is that unexploded materials could detonate if hunters came across them, Havlick says. The contamination there doesn't impact the health of the animals, however; at Rocky Flats and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, there's the potential that a deer could carry dangerous chemicals.
Crab Orchard, a munitions manufacturing facility during World War II in Illinois, later became home to commercial tenants that buried waste in the ground, resulting in high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, man-made chemicals with the potential to cause cancer and disrupt the immune system. Today it's a national wildlife refuge that allows hunting.
The discrepancy in hunting opportunities at such sites, according to Crab Orchard's refuge manager, Justin Sexton, derives from the organizations overseeing the investigations into contamination at the sites — whether the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Department of the Interior or another government agency. Each portion of Crab Orchard that's contaminated has its own investigator. As a result, some portions of the refuge are still not open to public use, while others have been determined to be clean enough to safely allow human activities, including hunting.
According to Sexton, all refuges — including Rocky Flats and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal — have the potential to be open to hunting and fishing. "If it is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, I can guarantee you that at some point they will look at allowing those activities," he says. The Comprehensive Conservation Plans for both Rocky Flats and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal list limited hunting as an allowed activity, which means it hasn't been ruled out in the future.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife reviews hunting and fishing programs at refuges and hatcheries annually.
Of the 567 National Wildlife Refuges, hunting is now permitted on 434, or 76.5 percent, while fishing is allowed on 378. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, increasing hunting and fishing is part of the Interior Department’s commitment to stewardship of public lands and economic stimulation.
The most recent expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities impacted 88 wildlife refuges and one hatchery, opening twelve refuges to hunting or sport fishing for the first time.
Jessica Sutt, a public affairs specialist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, says that while technically, the agency could one day pursue opening Rocky Flats to hunting, that would require consultation with local stakeholders, including residents of Candelas.
Havlick doesn't think that Rocky Flats or the Rocky Mountain Arsenal will ever be part of a hunting or fishing expansion. "The only way it would make sense is if we forget the true character of those places," he says.