WASHINGTON (AP) – The Bush administration said Monday it will give people who hunt and fish new access to hundreds of thousands of acres of lands and streams within 17 national wildlife refuges and wetlands.

The decision as the Republican National Convention was opening in New York was announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Asked if it might help President Bush’s re-election efforts, the agency’s director, Steve Williams said, “This is just another example of the president’s commitment to sportsmen.”

“By law, Congress directed the service to consider and provide opportunities for hunting and fishing where it’s compatible on the refuges. We take that quite seriously,” Williams added.

Both Bush and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry have cast themselves as sportsmen in campaigning for votes among hunters and conservationists. Groups that promote hunting and fishing rights or habitat for fish and game – such as the Boone and Crockett Club, Ducks Unlimited and the National Rifle Association – claim millions of members.

Hunting and fishing, along with observing and photographing wildlife, have long been allowed in the 95-million-acre refuge system.

That includes 544 national wildlife refuges and thousands of small wetlands and other specially managed areas.

Currently, more than 300 wildlife refuges and about 3,000 small wetlands are open to hunting, and more than 260 wildlife refuges are open to fishing.

Monday’s decision opens another 243,500 acres as of Sept. 1, wildlife officials said.

Federal officials opened to hunting and fishing four more national wildlife refuges: Mountain Long Leaf in Alabama, 3,300 acres; Cypress Creek in Illinois, 100 acres; Red River in Louisiana, 2,700 acres, and Waccamaw in South Carolina, 10,500 acres.

Also opened were six more wetlands management districts: Devils Lake in North Dakota, 56,000 acres; and in South Dakota: Huron, 11,000 acres; Lake Andrews, 20,000 acres; Madison, 38,500 acres; Sand Lake, 45,000 acres, and Waubay, 4,400 acres.

Seven refuges where officials added to the land and marshes available for hunting are Savannah in Georgia and South Carolina, 2,000 acres; Big Oaks in Indiana, 10,000 acres; Big Branch Marsh in Louisiana, 6,000 acres; Crescent Lake in Nebraska, 5,000 acres; Cross Creek and Tennessee in Tennessee, 24,000 acres, and Trinity in Texas, 5,000 acres.

Officials said the agency was not adding money to the budget to help with managing the additional activity in the newly opened areas.

Betsy Loyless, a vice president and lobbyist for the League of Conservation Voters, called the decision a blatant attempt to sway voters.

“I do think politics are at play,” she said. “The areas they’ve chosen play to the base. What this means in terms of conservation is questionable.”

Her group supports more limited hunting and fishing at the refuges, Loyless said, adding that the administration’s decision and other wetlands policies put millions of acres at risk of being developed.

“This is like a putting a hole in the bucket and then saying you’re going to fill it with a little water, or a little wetlands,” Loyless said.

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