Outdoors: Change in store for huge refuge
May 22, 2005 RIVER0522
Major changes -- some controversial -- could be coming for hunters, anglers, campers and other users of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.
The federal refuge snakes 261 miles from near Wabasha, Minn., to northern Illinois and includes 240,000 acres.
Sixty percent of the refuge is in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and it is heavily used by residents of both states.
Among the possible changes:
• Limiting waterfowl hunters to 25 shotgun shells during the waterfowl season to reduce "sky-busting" -- shooting at birds out of range. That leads to higher crippling rates for ducks and geese and diminishes the hunting experience for other hunters.
• Requiring that hunting parties maintain 100 yards between each other to improve the quality of the hunting experience. Permanent waterfowl hunting blinds would be eliminated.
• Increasing the number of areas closed to waterfowl hunting from 15 to 21. Those closed areas also would be closed to fishing, trapping and camping during the waterfowl season to reduce waterfowl disturbance.
• Restricting motor use to only electric motors in 16 new areas totalling about 14,500 acres.
• Camping and overnight mooring would be limited to islands and shorelines that border the main river channel.
• Several hiking trails and canoe routes are being proposed -- places for those seeking a non-motorized experience.
• Alcohol use already is prohibited in the refuge, but a proposal would prohibit visitors entering or staying there from being under the influence, defined as a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent.
The proposals are part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comprehensive management plan for the refuge covering the next 15 years. The refuge draws 3.7 million visitors yearly, making it the most heavily visited one in the nation. The agency is conducting a series of public meetings to get input on various options being considered. Meetings in Minnesota begin this week.
"We're trying to manage for fish and wildlife, and we want people to enjoy the resources -- the fish, wildlife and natural beauty," said Tim Yager, acting refuge manger for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Winona District. "But recreational use of the river has increased substantially in recent years. And this puts pressure on our natural resources that we haven't had to address before.
"We have to take some steps to put us back in balance."
Yager said he expects some of the proposals to be controversial.
"If your favorite [hunting] spot happens to fall into the closed areas, you're probably not going to be happy about it," he said.
But reducing waterfowl disturbance and providing more or better refuges should benefit the waterfowl population, he said. About 80 percent of the refuge still would be open for hunting.
Areas in the Wabasha, Winona and La Crosse, Wis., regions would be affected by the proposals. A canoe route and hiking trail is proposed near Wabasha. Several motorless areas are proposed in the Wabasha-Winona areas where only electric motors would be allowed.
A managed hunting program would be launched on the north end of Lake Onalaska, a popular hunting area on the Wisconsin side of the river near La Crosse. Hunters would apply in a drawing for one of the limited number of hunting spots, and likely would be charged a fee to pay for the program.
Changes that eventually are adopted could be implemented beginning next year.
Doug Smith is at firstname.lastname@example.org