WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration said yesterday that it will give people who hunt and fish new access to hundreds of thousands of acres of land and streams within 17 national wildlife refuges and wetlands, including areas in such battleground election states as South Dakota, Illinois, and Louisiana.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service made the announcement as the Republican National Convention was opening in New York. Asked whether it might help President Bush's reelection 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 the Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John F. 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.
The decision yesterday opens another 243,500 acres tomorrow, officials said.