Waterfowlers should expect new Upper Miss refuge rules this year

By Tim Spielman

Associate Editor

Winona, Minn. – Sportsmen will get at least one more shot to
comment on rule changes that could affect hunting, trapping, and
other activities on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife
and Fish Refuge for the next few years, when a portion of the rule
changes included in the proposed Comprehensive Conservation Plan
are published in the Federal Register, perhaps in June.

Other parts of the plan will be delayed for at least a year,
according to Don Hultman, manager of the national fish and game
refuge in Winona, Minn.

Hultman acknowledged that change is unlikely for the more
detailed portions of the plan, four years in the creating. Areas
open (and closed) to duck hunting have all but been finalized, and
most will take effect this year. But some aspects – trapping, for
example – are included in general terms and ‘step-down’ plans are
moving forward; they’re not likely to be implemented until
2008.

The plan describes management of the entire 240,000-acre,
261-mile-long refuge, which includes the states of Wisconsin,
Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. It will guide management activities
for the next 15 years.

‘Now it’s time to implement various parts of the plan,’ Hultman
said.

Most noticeable to Wisconsin and Minnesota sportsmen will be
likely changes in areas open to duck hunting in the refuge.

Changes could be in place for pools 5, 5A, 7, and 8 this
fall.

‘As called for in the CCP, changes to the closed areas in Pool 4
have been delayed until 2009 as monitoring of waterfowl use in
these areas continues,’ a USFWS press release states.

For 2007, nine existing areas closed to waterfowling won’t
change, including those in Pool 4, along with the Wisconsin Islands
(Pool 8) Harper’s Slough (Pool 9), and 12-Mile Island (Pool 10).
Others are south of the Minnesota and Wisconsin borders. Certain
Pool 4 areas would be off-limits to waterfowling in 2009.

The boundaries will change for eight areas, in five cases
expanding a closed area, and in three, decreasing the size of
closed areas. Changes will occur for Pool 5 (Weaver Bottoms, 360
more closed acres), Pool 5A (Polander, 318 more acres closed), Pool
7 (Lake Onalaska, 21 additional closed acres), Pool 8 (Goose
Island, 110 more closed acres), as well as changes in Pool 11,
resulting in a net addition of about 30 acres to ‘sanctuary’
status. The Pleasant Creek area will open about 530 acres to
hunting.

There are six new closed or restricted areas, including Spring
Lake in Pool 5 (243 acres), Sturgeon Slough in Pool 10 (340 acres),
the Wisconsin River Delta (special hunt area, 1,406 acres open
until Nov. 1., then closed to the end of the state waterfowl
season), and John Deere Marsh in Pool 11 (439 acres). Another 1,000
acres will be closed or restricted in pools 12 and 14.

While the total number of closed or restricted areas will
increase to 23 in 2009 from 15 currently, the total acreage will
remain nearly unchanged.

Yet, the proposal has stirred opposition from hunters.

‘Any time there are changes to something that hasn’t been
changed since 1958, people are going to be opposed to those
changes,’ Hultman said.

The biggest change, though, won’t occur until 2009, when 3,000
acres in Pool 4 (Nelson-Trevino, Rieck’s Lake, and Peterson Lake)
likely will be closed to waterfowling. That’s a total of about
3,000 acres, Hultman said.

But, Hultman adds, the agency is attempting to keep as much land
open to hunting as possible. The goal in the CCP was to maintain a
minimum of 187,000 acres, or 78 percent of the refuge, open to
hunting. That’s a decrease of about 2 percent from the current
192,000 acres.

That means about 5,000 additional acres, eventually, will be
off-limits to hunting. Of that, Hultman says in a press release,
‘4,000 acres is to prohibit open-water hunting in an area of Pool
11, Grant County, Wisconsin, that has become a critical staging
area for lesser scaup and canvasback ducks, two species of
management concern.’

Other areas will be closed ‘for public safety reasons on or
adjacent to existing or proposed hiking trails and facilities, or
due to adjacent town or residential areas.’

Why the changes now to closed/sanctuary areas? Hultman said it’s
mainly a question of waterfowl need. He also believes it could
benefit hunters.

Weekly aerial surveys in the fall have shown USFWS officials the
areas birds are using.

‘Most were sitting in three of the 15 (closed) areas,’ Hultman
said. ‘That tells you something about the habitat.’

The new closed areas are located where there’s plenty of food
available for waterfowl. Offering ducks respite in new areas could
improve hunting, he said.

For example, in Pool 4 (areas to be closed in 2009), ‘I’m
convinced we could increase the number of birds in the area, and
better spread out the birds (increasing hunting opportunity),’
Hultman said.

Hultman said the decisions have been based on ‘pretty hard
science over a long period of time.’

But some citizens question that science.

Sandy Heidel, of Onalaska, a member of the ‘Garage Group,’
composed of refuge users concerned with the USFWS’s decisions
regarding the refuge, said group members thought some decisions –
primarily those for closed waterfowling areas and no-wake
restrictions – lacked scientific backing.

‘The changes are so dramatic,’ Heidel said. ‘They displace
hunters, and (the USFWS) doesn’t have science to back them up.’

Heidel said more attention should’ve been paid to current closed
areas – habitat should’ve been maintained – so that new closed
areas wouldn’t be deemed necessary.

Further, the Garage Group believes the state of Wisconsin should
be the entity that guides hunting and fishing rules, as well as
water-use regulations, for the state.

Unlike Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, where those states’ laws
follow lockstep with new federal regulations on the refuge,
Wisconsin officials must alter the state’s rules to match new
federal regulations.

The current rules, in place since 1958, were adopted by the
state of Wisconsin at the same time federal regulations took
effect, Hultman said.

‘It’s always been a partnership on the river,’ he said.

But when (or if) new rules are in place for Upper Mississippi
refuge waterfowlers this year, DNR conservation wardens from
Wisconsin won’t be enforcing them, according to Scott Loomans,
staff specialist for the Wisconsin DNR.

Questions regarding refuge use and rule changes were put before
Wisconsin sportsmen at statewide hearings held in each county on
April 16, and the changes were soundly defeated.

‘That slowed us down,’ Loomans said. ‘We’ve decided not to go
ahead with rule changes this fall. Our wardens don’t enforce
federal rules.’

He said wardens would be on the refuge, checking waterfowl
license, stamps, steel shot, and other rules, but would only be
enforcing laws currently on the state’s books, regarding closed
hunting areas.

‘Now we’ve got to decide what steps to take next,’ Loomans said,
adding that likely will include working with the USFWS to come up
with boundary changes that ‘would make people happy.’

He said that once the USFWS refuge rule changes are published in
the Federal Register, the state would be among those
commenting.

Loomans said the state could adopt ‘reciprocity’ rules like
those of the other three states along the refuge – whereby federal
rules would automatically be adopted by the state, like some
federal transportation laws are – ‘but we haven’t.’

Heidel said water use and hunting and fishing regulations are in
good hands with the state.

‘The bottom line is, we think the state of Wisconsin has done a
good job,’ she said. ‘We want them to continue managing our natural
resources.’

Electric motors, no wake

According to the USFWS, the establishment of four new electric
motor-only areas and eight new seasonal slow, no-wake areas will
not take place until sometime in 2008, not 2007 as earlier
anticipated.

Hultman said these changes are considered ‘new rules’ versus
hunting area ‘amendments,’ and the rule-making process takes more
time.

For more information, visit go to
www.fws.gov/midwest/planning/uppermiss.

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