(MUSKOGEE) - Hunters fear they will no longer have access to a popular wildlife area in Muskogee County that also serves as a military training ground.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided not to renew the state Department of Wildlife Conservation's license for game management at Camp Gruber when it expires Dec. 31.
Army Corps officials say the agency will have to formulate a management plan with the Oklahoma National Guard. The National Guard will now hold a primary license to the property leased from the Army Corps, officials said.
The wildlife department and the National Guard have held joint licenses on the 32,000 acres in eastern Muskogee County for years.
As the active Army declined in numbers, the use reserve troops in missions such as policing in Bosnia and military operations in Desert Storm went up. That's meant more training at Camp Gruber and more conflicts with hunters over its use.
Hunters fear the Guard eventually will eliminate all access to the area.
``I don't think hunters have anything to worry about,'' said Lt. Col. Pat Scully, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Guard. ``We're going to get together, and we're going to come up with a plan together.''
Scully said once a management plan is drawn up, the wildlife department and Guard will go to the public and ask for input.
The Corps, Guard and wildlife department met Tuesday in Muskogee at the request of state wildlife Commissioner Vyrl Keeter, who also is the manager of the district office of U.S. Rep. Brad Carson, D-Okla.
In a news release, Carson said he wants to work with the agencies to ensure a satisfactory agreement, but made it clear he wanted no restrictions on the hunters.
``I will insist that whatever agreement comes out of this situation will be one that continues to ensure the full access of Oklahomas sportsmen to hunting and fishing at Camp Gruber,'' Carson said.
For more than a year, the wildlife department has been asking for a renewal of the license it holds, and wildlife proponents have been circulating a petition and writing letters to congressmen to help get the renewal.
The wildlife department says the camp is one of the heaviest used wildlife areas in the state, with much of it open to public hunting and fishing throughout the regular seasons.
Greg Duffy, wildlife department director, said he would work hard to maintain usage at its present level, but hunters are still concerned.
``That means they control it, lock, stock, and barrel,'' said Charlie Olzawski, a Fort Gibson sportsman. ``If not in 2002, then shortly thereafter, I can see there being no more public hunting at Gruber.
``They may continue the drawn hunts, but public access to Black Hollow or Hilltop as we know it now during season would be nil.''