BOUNDARY COUNTY, Idaho - If you flood it, they will come.

Just ask Pat Cole.

Last March 28 - he knows the date like a parent knows a child's birthday - the habitat biologist screwed open a floodgate, and watched cold, clear water course onto the new Boundary Creek Wildlife Management Area. A week later, the water had created a 15-acre pond with 1,200 mallards and pintails resting on it.

Water spread to other basins on the former wheat farm, and before the summer was out, biologists had counted 17 species of waterfowl and 86 broods. Cole, who works for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, is still amazed that a mix of federal and private funds has given his agency the chance to recreate historic wetlands along the Kootenai River in northern Idaho.

"It's like, 'OK, you guys have a million dollars.' A million dollars!" says Cole, who is steward of Boundary Creek's 1,425 acres of bottomland and wooded hillside. "Most of our management areas are like houses that have had 10 additions, built by hook or by crook. We do new developments, but nothing on this scale."

The new wetlands brought birds rarely seen in northern Idaho: whimbrels, ruddy ducks, a great egret, American avocets. Predators also moved in.

"You could count 20 hawks at any one time," says Cole.

Conservationists throughout the state share Cole's excitement over this achievement. There is endless potential, they say, to recreate the historic wetlands that existed before this area was diked and dammed.

Boundary Creek is just 10 miles, as a goose flies, south of the internationally recognized Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area in British Columbia. Adding more wetlands on the United States side of the valley would further enhance food supplies and nesting areas for the estimated 75,000 waterfowl that stop here as they migrate as far south as Utah's Great Salt Lake. Already, Idaho Fish and Game is working to expand the wildlife management area.

But not everyone is thrilled with the prospect. Boundary County commissioners and many of the people they represent look at Boundary Creek and see what's been lost in the flooding: a farm that contributed to the county's shaky economic base.

Farmland under attack

According to Commissioner Dan Denning, county officials approved the original Boundary Creek purchase in 1999 only after being assured that the state would buy no more property in the county. Now, they feel blindsided by Idaho Fish and Game's proposal to expand the wildlife management area by buying an adjoining 756 acres of former farmland. Seventy-four percent of the county already belongs to the state or federal governments, and locals fear the loss of productive private land.

"The Nature Conservancy just purchased a big piece," Denning says, referring to the Ball Creek Ranch, another property along the Kootenai River. "At what point is there enough productive farmland taken out for ducks?"

There is such vocal disagreement with wetland expansion in Boundary County that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped plans this spring to study possible additions to another nearby wetland, the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge. Yet, county sentiment is mixed. Property rights are highly prized here, and no one publicly criticizes farmers who sell their property for conservation use.

Among those farmers was Deon Hubbard, whose property is now the Boundary Creek Wildlife Management Area. When his wife decided it was time for him to retire, he sold a conservation easement to the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service for $1.2 million.

"They say there's another definition of child abuse, and that's to give your farm to your kids," Hubbard says. "So I decided not to do that. Farming's a rough game."

With agriculture on the wane, county commissioners shouldn't underestimate the tourism potential for bird-watching, says Dan Casey, Northern Rockies coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy. He cites the restoration of federal grazing land along Arizona's San Pedro River, which brought not only an influx of birds, but binoculared tourists from all over the country and even the world. "As many as 65 million Americans feed or watch birds, and they spend over $26 billion a year," Casey says. "Bird-watching is becoming one of the most popular hobbies in the country ... It might even be growing faster than golf."

The Kootenai Valley Sportsmen Association thinks the expanded Boundary Creek area also has potential as a great spot for hunters and wildlife watchers. Visitors to Boundary Creek will aim their shotguns and binoculars at more than wood ducks and Canada geese, says the group's president, Jon Weaver; deer and elk abound, as do many nongame species.

Chasing collaboration

Ironically, the additional acres that the state wants to buy are already in a federal conservation easement, which means they can't be farmed, as county officials would prefer. Too, Idaho Fish and Game pays fees in lieu of property taxes when it buys property, so agency officials argue the county would not lose tax dollars in the deal.

But for now, plans to expand the Boundary Creek wildlife management area are on hold. While state officials don't need the county commission's OK to buy the additional property, they'd like to have that nod of approval. That's why the agency is working with the Boundary Creek citizens' advisory group, composed of locals who want to help the state create community-based projects, such as picnic tables and nature trails at the wildlife refuge. At the earliest, the state will hold public hearings this spring.

"If we're interested in furthering wildlife interests, then we need to be working with local communities," says Mark Taylor of Idaho Fish and Game. "We ought to be creating an atmosphere of trust and communication, regardless of what's on the back burner."

Writer Julie Titone lives in Post Falls, Idaho.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Julie Titone