DEC eyes rules update for WMAs; clubs welcome target shooters

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The state Department of Environmental Conservation released a draft proposal for public comment that would update regulations governing public use of the state’s vast network of Wildlife Management Areas.

DEC is proposing these amendments to protect natural resources, promote public safety, and help ensure the multiple uses of New York’s WMAs remain compatible with natural resource protection and visitor interest.

Recently residents of the Village of Oriskany spoke out about land marked for conservation in Oriskany Flats Wildlife Management Area being used for target shooting, and some local residents are calling on the state Department of Environmental Conservation to derive a law to ban such activity.

Neighbors have complained since before COVID-19 struck, that the shooting is causing noise and environmental pollution on lands that should be protected. Activities are also putting wildlife at risk.

DEC officials said proposed changes in regulations would help bring consistency with existing rules for state forests, campgrounds and other DEC lands, and codify rules and guidance already in place at many WMAs to make these rules enforceable. DEC is accepting public comments on the draft proposal until May 24. 

“Ensuring our public lands are clean, safe, and enjoyable is a top priority for DEC and I applaud our staff for developing this proposal to keep regulations for the state’s Wildlife Management Areas up-to-date,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said. “The proposed regulations will ensure our WMAs are protected and continue to provide quality hunting, trapping, fishing and wildlife observation opportunities for years to come, and I encourage New Yorkers to review and comment on this comprehensive proposal.” 

New York has more than 120 WMAs containing nearly 250,000 acres, including 124,000 acres of forests and grasslands and 53,000 acres of wetlands. DEC’s Bureau of Wildlife manages an additional 38,000 acres of land, including Unique Areas and Multiple Use Areas, for a total of approximately 150 areas that thousands of New Yorkers visit and enjoy each year. 

In the draft regulations currently out for public comment, DEC is proposing to update and clarify existing regulations defining the allowable activities and uses of WMAs. The proposals continue to
prioritize activities that include hunting, fishing, trapping, and wildlife viewing. Among other proposed updates, the draft regulations would:  

Prevent the introduction of aquatic invasive species by prohibiting their transport to WMA waters while boating; 

Only allow non-motorized boats or boats with electric motors, except when posted open or permitted by DEC. Boats would also be prohibited from being moored, stored, or anchored overnight; 

Ensure certain Unique Areas and Multiple Use Areas managed by DEC’s Division of Fish and Wildlife have the same protections as WMAs; 

Prohibit the discharge of firearms other than for hunting or trapping, except when using paper targets at areas clearly posted as open to target shooting and with suitable backstops. In addition, the proposed regulations prohibit breakable targets, such as clay pigeons, and paintballs and paintball guns. These measures are important to protect public safety and prevent litter and the destruction of natural resources;  

Clarify and make enforceable restrictions on motor vehicles and motorized equipment prohibited in WMAs. Snowmobiles would be allowed on designated routes covered by a minimum of three inches of snow or ice and only between the close of the regular big game hunting season until March 31. This measure would help prevent the degradation of trails and habitat, particularly during mud season.

The regulations also prohibit motorized vehicles or bicycles on posted roads and motorized vehicles of any kind off-road, unless with DEC authorization;

Prohibit the construction, use, or abandonment of any structure on a WMA except with a DEC permit. This excludes legally placed traps, tree stands, and hunting blinds during big game, migratory gamebird, or turkey seasons with specified hunter identification, and wildlife viewing blinds placed for 10 days maximum in one location per calendar year with specified hunter identification. Construction of stands or blinds cannot be nailed to, screwed in, or otherwise injure trees;  

Prohibit gatherings of more than 20 people without a permit;  

Require owners or trainers to keep dogs on leash and under immediate control except: when dogs are being legally used for hunting or training for hunting on lands designated as dog-training areas during designated training seasons set by regulation; when participating in a licensed field trial and authorized by a DEC permit; or as otherwise permitted in writing by DEC; 

Prevent underage drinking by explicitly prohibiting anyone under 21 years ​​of age from possessing alcoholic beverages unless accompanied by a parent or guardian; 

Include additional restrictions that prevent the destruction or removal of state property, littering, wildfire risk, risks to public safety, as well as allow other activities with a DEC permit or other authorization;

And remove sections of existing regulations that are redundant or obsolete.  

The regulatory proposal is available on the DEC website for review and public comment until May 24. Comments on the proposal should be submitted via e-mail to wildlife@dec.ny.gov or via mail to Bureau of Wildlife, NYSDEC, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4754. Use the subject line “Part 51 Regulations” for emails or letters.  

Some area residents have said the spaces or facilities to go target practicing are limited, and that local gun clubs are “at capacity,” while practice is needed to hunt humanely.

But local club officials said there are several gun clubs and ranges throughout Oneida County where hunters, and sportsmen and women, can go practice shooting, and enjoy their sport safely. Clubs do require an initial registration fee and annual renewal fees.

Chet Cichon, Camden Rod & Gun Club president, said the club won’t turn anyone away who’s interested in becoming a member.

“It is legal to go to the Sand Plains” and target shoot, “as long as you’re doing it safely and following the rules,” said Cichon when discussing possible areas to go target shooting.

But by joining a gun club like Camden Rod & Gun at 2655 Moran Post Road, “you can do a lot of different things,” he said. “We also have our archery range, trap range, rifle range and skeet range. There’s a lot of different disciplines. And there’s places to go if you’re interested in practicing.”

Clinton Fish & Game Club, Inc. at 3067 Lumbard Road is a 50 acre club that includes indoor and outdoor pistol ranges; 100 and 200 yard rifle ranges; 5-stand sporting clay range; three regulation skeet fields; a seasonal sporting clays course; a 27 square-foot club house with kitchen and bar facility; club guns are available for renting; as well as shooting and reloading supplies.

As for some of the shooting activities occurring in the Oriskany Flats Wildlife Management Area, referring to complaints of noise and damage, Clinton Fish & Game Club Treasurer James Gormady, said that “we take safety very seriously. Most people here are very ethical. We have quite a few members who are hunters as well, but we don’t allow hunting on the property.”

The club is open year-round, and the Sunday shooting program runs 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. An annual family membership is $100; the indoor pistol range is a $100 annual membership; and combined memberships (family and indoor pistol range) is $150. Special programs offered include New York Hunter Safety Training, Firearms Safety Instruction Class, shotgun clinics and competitions, registered skeet shoots, sporting clay tournaments, Fish & Wildlife Stocking programs and conservation programs and game dinners.

Gormady said there are several women members of their club, as well as local residents who have immigrated to the area from Mexico, Burma and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“We pride ourselves in being an all-inclusive club,” the treasurer said. “And our instructors here are all certified.”

Clinton Fish & Game Club has been in existence since 1937 and has never had a shooting accident, Gormady said. It has 168 members.

“We obey all the state laws and you must be licensed,” he said. “With membership you’re given a key and anytime someone enters the gate my phone rings — it’s (ranges) all monitored by cameras and I’m instantly notified when someone is there. We are also COVID-19 compliant.”

Charles Ellsworth, president of Deerfield Fish & Game Club, Inc. at 11400 Cruikshank Road, said his club was founded in 1957, incorporated in 1959, and today has about 200 members.

With gun ownership coming up for debate nationally with the issue of increased gun violence at the forefront, Ellsworth said now is the time to join an open gun club as a hunter or sportsman.

While some clubs may put a cap on their membership, “We are still taking members,” he said.

Deerfield has a 225 yard rifle range, a 50 yard pistol range, is developing an area for shotguns, “and we’re hoping to develop an area for archery, including a 3D target area,” Ellsworth said.

While guards employed at the Alexander Pirnie Federal Building in Utica will soon be undergoing their annual recertification at the Deerfield Fish & Game Club, Ellsworth said, “We also do a handgun workshop for those who just got their pistol permits with no experience.”

The ranges at Deerfield are open for use, but adhere to the following COVID-19 guidelines:

No more than 10 members together in any specific area on the club grounds at one time, or using any one amenity.

Keep a distance of at least 6 feet between each member while on the grounds and wear a mask.

Only occupy every other station in the range houses while shooting.

No congregating in or near the range houses.

No congregating in or near the clubhouse.

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