By Michael Howell
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released a draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan that would guide management activities on the refuge for the next 15 years. The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 required that a CCP be developed to guide the management of all refuge programs. The draft plan and accompanying Environmental Assessment was the subject of a public meeting at the Refuge headquarters on Monday, April 9 and public comment on the plan will be accepted until the end of the month.
Draft goals outlined in the plan include managing and, where appropriate, restoring the natural topography, water movements, and physical integrity of the surface water flow patterns across the Bitterroot River floodplain. In addition to the Bitterroot River, several historical tributaries flow into the refuge including North Burnt Fork Creek, Three Mile Creek and Bass Creek.
The plan calls for maintaining wetland impoundments to create a diversity of habitats for target waterfowl, shorebirds, and other associated wetland species. The plan also allows for the restoration, maintenance and distribution of native grassland and shrubland species such as rabbitbrush, needle and thread grass, Junegrass, and hairy golden aster, while at the same time preventing, reducing and containing the introduction and spread of noxious, invasive, and harmful nonnative species both on and near the refuge.
Other goals include pursuing and maintaining compatible research projects that would provide information on refuge resources and address issues related to management, preserving and maintaining cultural resources, providing quality, compatible wildlife-dependent recreation, environmental education, and interpretation programs. The plan also calls for maintaining and cultivating partnerships to help achieve the vision, goals, and objectives outlined in the plan.
In all cases the plan states, wildlife will be the first priority.
The EA examines three alternatives for achieving the goals and objectives identified, a no-action alternative, and two others.
The no-action alternative would mean no changes from the current levels of monitoring and management. The Bitterroot River would continue to migrate through the refuge, eroding some levees and trails. Invasive species would continue to be treated primarily with mechanical and chemical methods. Water supply and management structures would be inadequate to properly manage many of the wetland impoundments. Cattail monocultures would be treated and wetlands drained periodically. No change in staff levels would occur. There are currently five staff members at the Refuge.
Alternative B, which is designated the “preferred alternative,” would make some changes. It focuses on the expansion and restoration of native plant communities including grasslands, shrublands, and gallery and riverfront forests. This would involve drying up some of the current wetland impoundments. A significant focus would also be to control invasive plant species. Some wetland impoundments and non-public service roads would be eliminated or reduced in size to allow the Bitterroot River to migrate and restore native forest land.
One issue facing the refuge concerns the production and accumulation of mercury that has been detected in osprey and fish at the refuge. It is believed to be methyl mercury conditions created in stagnant pond water and has been detected in osprey and fish at the refuge.
Alternative B also calls for the expansion and improvement of the refuge’s compatible wildlife-dependent public use programs, in particular the wildlife observation, environmental education, and interpretation programs. The visitor center would be expanded to make more room for new displays and a combination conference room and environmental education classroom.
This alternative also calls for working with Ravalli County to designate the county road in the refuge as an auto tour route, which would include pull offs and some form of interpretation. A seasonal hiking trail would be opened on the road around Pond 8, and current trails would be improved for wildlife observation and photography. The refuge staff would be expanded from five to 8.5 employees, to include an assistant refuge manager, two biological science technicians (one full time and one career seasonal), and a visitor services specialist who would also serve as a visitor center manager and volunteer coordinator.
Alternative C contains many of the elements found in Alternative B related to expanding visitor service programs and facilities. However, habitat management would be focused on maintaining wetland impoundments and attempting to restrict the movements of the Bitterroot River throughout the refuge. Habitat efforts would be primarily focused on providing waterfowl and other waterbird habitat.
A few people at the public meeting expressed concerns with the use of chemicals to combat weeds on the refuge. They said evidence is mounting that many of the most common herbicides in use are poisonous to both wildlife and humans in very small amounts.
A representative from Five Valleys Audubon advocated retaining Ponds 11 and 12 and keeping the Kenai Trail open year round. He also suggested the possibility of constructing a group viewing blind that could hold as many as 20 people.
Some confusing language about the potential relocation of the Kenai Trail away from the river was also discussed and will be clarified in the final document.
Dale Burk, a member of the Friends of the Metcalf Refuge, noted that one of the plan’s goals was to “maintain and cultivate partnerships” that help achieve the vision, goals and objectives of the refuge plan. He criticized the refuge management for failing in this regard in their dealings with the Friends of the Metcalf Wildlife Refuge, which has been banned from working with refuge staff for reasons that members claim they still do not understand. Burk said the agency has veered from its original mandate in this regard.
Comments on the plan may be made on-line on the comment form under “Public Involvement” on the project web page at www.fws.gov/mountainprairie/planning/forms/lmc_form_comments.php, or e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org mailed to Laura King, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 58355 Bison Range Road, Moiese MT 59824, or faxed to 404/644-2661, attn: Laura King, Planning Team Leader. Comments must be e-mailed or post marked by 5 p.m., April 30, 2012. Those comments will be reviewed and any necessary changes made before the Regional Director in Denver makes a decision.