USFWS unveils its revised refuge plan

By Tim Spielman Associate Editor

La Crosse, Wis. — After nearly four years of planning, public
meetings (46 of them), revisions, and review of more than 3,200
comments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on July 17 announced
its final plan for management of the Upper Mississippi River
National Fish and Wildlife Refuge for the next 15 years.

After a 30-day “waiting period,” the plan must be OK’d by USFWS
Region 3 Director Robyn Thorson.

Refuge manager Don Hultman said the USFWS attempted to balance
the vast variety of comments it received from refuge users, which
range from bird watchers to duck hunters to recreational
boaters.

Further, “We needed to speak for wildlife, which doesn’t have a
voice, and figure that into our decision-making,” he said. “We’ll
never be able to please everybody, because of the nature of the
river and the scope of this refuge.”

Residents of four states – Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and
Illinois, took an interest in planning the future of the refuge
that stretches 261 miles, from Wabasha, Minn., to Savannah,
Ill.

The planning process exposed a number of hot-button issues, and
prompted reaction from conservation groups, elected officials,
state agencies, and even the Wisconsin attorney general. The final
plan includes some aspects of the original preferred management
alternative, but several variations, as well.

No aspect of the plan will take effect until next year. The cost
of the plan is estimated to be almost $228 million over 15 years,
78 percent of which Hultman said will be used for restoration and
improvement of habitat, and land acquisition.

Duck hunting

A general proposal by the USFWS to limit hunters to 25
shotshells and create a minimum of 100 yards spacing between
hunting parties was eliminated.

The plan also calls for three new “no-hunting zones” totalling
290 acres, while maintaining a minimum of 187,200 acres (slightly
fewer than currently available, and 78 percent of the refuge) of
land and water open to all hunting.

The plan also modifies areas closed to waterfowl hunting. Many
of the changes would occur next year, but changes for Pool 4 in
Wisconsin and Minnesota wouldn’t take effect until 2009, Hultman
said.

According to the plan summary: “Alternative E delays the
implementation of the new Big Lake Waterfowl Hunting Closed Area
until fall 2009, to allow for additional monitoring of waterfowl
use in the existing Nelson-Trevino Waterfowl Hunting Closed Area
and surrounding areas.

“The Buffalo Slough area also would be opened to hunting in
2009, while a portion of Peterson Lake would retain its closed area
designation.”

The Nelson-Trevino Slow, No Wake Area also is delayed until
2009.

“We thought it was prudent to do more intensive study (of the
area, for duck use),” Hultman said.

All told, eight new closed areas will be added; others will be
modified, for a total of 23 closed areas. Two new waterfowl
sanctuaries will be added for a total of three.

The plan creates the Wisconsin River Delta Special Hunt Area,
closed to hunting and trapping, and a voluntary “avoidance area”
from Nov. 1 to the end of the duck-hunting season.

The USFWS also plans to phase out permanent, overnight
duck-hunting blinds in the southern portion of the refuge in
Illinois.

Hultman said duck hunters should be aware the current plan does
not include the formerly proposed Goose Island Special Hunt Area,
which was to be located on 235 acres to the north of the Goose
Island entrance.

“This area remains open to current uses, including hunting,” the
plan summary states.

Issues arising from use of mechanical decoys should be handled
by state agencies, USFWS officials said.

Wisconsin water
use

Wisconsin citizens concerned the federal agency might be
overstepping its bounds in terms of water use – slow, no-wake
zones, motor-use restrictions, etc. – urged the state’s attorney
general, Peg Lautenschlager, to “ensure that (the plan) complies
with the state’s obligations to its citizens under the Wisconsin
Constitution,” a letter to the USFWS states.

Lautenschlager’s letter says the state of Wisconsin (and three
other states) gave its consent for refuge officials to begin to
acquire land in 1924, but with stipulations regarding water use.
She said the refuge plan must abide by the rules set forth at that
time.

In response, the USFWS states: Neither the Wisconsin DNR nor the
Wisconsin attorney general’s comments on Alternative E have said
that the USFWS has intruded or impinged on state authority. The
attorney general’s comments do not say that the USFWS has crossed a
line that would constitute intrusion into state authority.

“We continue to recognize and respect the various state and
Corps of Engineers authorities, tempered by the service’s own
authorities, for carrying out its federal trust species
responsibilities, and managing a national wildlife refuge in
accordance with its legislative purpose, the Refuge Improvement Act
of 1997, and refuge system regulations and policies.”

USFWS officials also said the planning process has included
close consultation with the four states along the refuge.

In addition, the USFWS responded, “We are seeking to balance
competing uses, acknowledging that no one public right is
absolute.”

Slow, no-wake

Some of the resistance in Wisconsin was due to slow, no-wake
area proposals. However, comments also came from outside
Wisconsin.

In defense of the slow, no-wake proposals, the USFWS states: “In
the case of slow, no-wake and electric motor areas, they constitute
less than 5 percent of the total refuge and less than 8 percent of
the water area of the refuge. Slow, no-wake areas also are
seasonal, so there are no restrictions for four and a half months
of the year. These areas also are open to hunting, fishing,
wildlife observations, and other currently allowed uses.”

The plan designates five electric motor areas encompassing 1,850
acres and eight slow, no-wake areas encompassing about 9,720
acres.

Pool plans

Hultman said the USFWS developed pool-specific plans, including
how the USFWS would like to see each pool in future years.
Priorities include construction of islands, pool drawdowns,
clearing silted-in backwaters, and rip-rapping islands to limit
erosion.

“We also have to work outside the refuge in the watersheds,”
Hultman said. “We need to work with private landowners.”

Hultman said the plan addresses pool drawdowns to benefit fish
and wildlife.

According to Alternative E, the plan is to “by 2021, complete as
many drawdowns of the refuge pools as practical through the
interagency work groups based on ecological need and engineering
feasibility.”

Other plan aspects

  • The plan also spells out building improvements for the refuge,
    along with its intent to increase staff size. Hultman estimates
    visitation to the refuge will increase annually by about 100,000 in
    the next 15 years.

Currently, the 240,000-acre refuge attracts about 3.5 million
visitors annually.

  • The plan calls for increases in the number of observation
    areas, hiking trails, biking trails, canoe trails, observation
    towers, and photography blinds.
  • The latest plan modifies restrictions on dog training and
    exercise on the refuge.
  • Restrictions on alcohol consumption and camping also were
    modified in the final plan.

To view the plan, go to
www.fws.gov/midwest/planning/uppermiss.

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