USFWS scales back changes for Upper Miss refuge plan

By Todd Richmond

Associated Press

Madison, Wis. (AP) – Hunters could still carry as many shells as
they want, campers could still drink, and boaters could race along
more stretches under scaled-back conservation plans for the upper
Mississippi River federal wildlife officials released Saturday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s new plan represents the
latest version of shifting strategies for the Upper Mississippi
River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The regulations, which
still need final approval, could transform river life by limiting
hunting, boating and camping.

The wildlife service has been working for months on the
sweeping, $216 million strategies. Officials released a 600-page
draft in May, but pulled it back for revisions after nearly 3,000
outdoors lovers showed up at public hearings on the plan in
Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois to complain about sections
of it. Refuge manager Don Hultman said the wildlife service
received about 2,400 written comments from the four states as

‘I don’t think anyone can claim we didn’t take their concerns to
heart,’ Hultman said. ‘It reflects a fine tuning based on the
public input. I think that’s true to what the process is supposed
to be.’

More than 3 million people visit the river refuge, which runs
about 260 miles from southern Minnesota to northern Illinois. It’s
home to hundreds of species of plants, fish and birds, including
ducks and bald eagles.

The federal Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act of 1997 requires
every national refuge to be managed according to their mission to
protect fish, wildlife and plants. The act calls for every refuge
to have a new conservation plan in place by 2012.

Some of the key revisions include:

The first plan set up a 25-shell limit for hunters in hopes of
discouraging ‘skybusting,’ the practice of shooting excessively at
out-of-range waterfowl that often results in crippled ducks that
can’t be retrieved. The new plan eliminates the limit. Hultman said
the idea ‘wasn’t popular at all.’

Originally, camping would have been limited to main channel
islands and shorelines, anyone with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08
percent or higher would be banned from camping and district
managers would have been able to declare some beaches

The new plan lets people camp wherever they want in the refuge
and wipes out both alcohol provisions, although managers would
still be able to remove campers if they get too rowdy. The
revisions also call for four more full-time agents to patrol the

The first plan would have added six more no-hunting zones to
the refuge, for a total of 13 – seven exist already – encompassing
5,322 acres. The new plan adds just three new no-hunting zones, for
a total of 10 encompassing 3,973 acres, with most near the
McGregor, Iowa, area, Hultman said. The original zones were
designed around new hiking trails, but the revisions removed the
trails, eliminating the need for the no-hunting zones around them,
Hultman said.

The original draft called for adding five new zones where duck
hunting would be banned, for a total of 21. The new plan calls for
six new zones where duck hunting would be illegal.

The plan also sets up a divided season in one of the zones; the
backwater area around McGregor, across from Prairie Du Chien, Wis.,
would be closed from the opening of duck season through Oct. 31.
Then the area would open, and the Wisconsin River delta around
Prairie Du Chien would close for the rest of the season.

The first plan called for closing the Wisconsin River delta area
permanently, but hunters complained the area was a duck hotbed.
Hultman called the split season a compromise.

The original draft set up 16 areas – covering 14,498 acres –
where boaters could use nothing more powerful than an electric
motor to reduce noise. The new plan lays out just six zones
covering 1,947 acres, but creates eight no-wake zones covering
10,569 acres. No airboats or hovercraft would be allowed in the
no-wake zones from March through October.

Many boaters complained it would take them hours to get up or
down the river if they could use only electric motors. Other river
users said they wanted quiet.

The wildlife service will hold nine open houses in cities along
the refuge during the next two months. The agency will then draft a
final plan, resubmit it to the public for another month, then ship
it to regional director Robyn Thorsen in Minneapolis for a final

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