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Know the West

Boats vs. birds


Protesters armed with posters opposing a ban on fishing, canoeing, boating and other recreation paraded 200 boats in a “Death of Recreation Parade” July 9.  Locals worried about Idaho's Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge's proposed comprehensive conservation plan were demonstrating to express concern that the new plan would limit their recreational pursuits and the industries that recreation supports.

The issue provides a type of case study of what can happen when recreation and government mandates mix.

The refuge's main feature is Lake Lowell, a manmade reservoir and one of the largest off-stream reservoirs in the West. It was created in 1909 to supply irrigation water to Idaho farms. It’s also become a haven to boaters, fishers, hunters, horsemen -- and wildlife.

Normally, revising these management plans does not provoke such a spirited responses, said Desiree Sorenson-Groves, Government Affairs Vice President for the National Wildlife Refuge Association. But Deer Flat’s case is unique: The refuge lies atop a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation site, and dammed lakes are more often seen as recreation areas than wildlife havens.

Complicating Deer Flat’s planning effort was a confusing battle over who owned surface water use jurisdiction--the bureau or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The two left it undecided until the service began design of the conservation plan. In June 2010, the agencies agreed that FWS should control Lake Lowell's surface water use.

Now, Lake Lowell recreationists are faced with rules where previously there were none, and it seems the mere presence of federal government meddling has irked them. But these recreation-hungry Idahoans may have jumped the gun with their parade. The Deer Flat plan’s preferred alternative would allow most current recreational activities, aside from restrictions on bicycling , dog walking, horseback riding and designations of specific times and locations for recreational lake use for parts of the lake.

The planning process also includes an alternative that would keep the same recreation access Lake Lowell has now.

The effort to satisfy both recreationists and wildlife protection mandates is part of an ongoing nationwide process set off by the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997. Refuges are part of more than 150 million acres of public land across the United States, a system initiated by Theodore Roosevelt as a means of protecting fish, wildlife and plant; this law focused on updating their management.

The 1997 act requires each refuge to design a 15-year plan by 2012 to guide future recreational and wildlife management.  As of April 2011, 424 comprehensive conservation plans were complete, 114 were in the process and 16 had yet to get underway.

Deer Flat's plan would protect more than 200 species of waterfowl, like Canadian geese, bald eagles and great blue heron and 30 mammals such as mule deer, river otter and red fox use the area.

After four open houses to gauge public concern, the refuge office had received 197 comments as of Wednesday evening, some addressing recreational concerns but others suggesting limiting use to non-motorized boats, along with some other ideas, said refuge manager Jennifer

While Deer Flat's dilemma has made the news for its contentiousness, refuge managers say they believe plans generally settle on an adequate balance between wildlife protection and recreation.

"Usually where most (plans) fall is somewhere in the middle," Sorenson-Groves said.

News reports also indicated the goal isn’t to take away boats, but still meet the federal mandate to protect wildlife.

But as the boat-driven battle continues between late-enforced rules and recreation habit, Lake Lowell boaters are unlikely to be appeased.

Kimberly Hirai is an intern at High Country News.

Image of Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.