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Communities | Environment

Idaho's Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge Plan Stirs Controversy

NAMPA, Idaho — Controversy is brewing in Idaho as wildlife managers at Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge develop a new plan to manage the refuge for the next fifteen years — potentially restricting powerboats that have coexisted there with birds, amphibians and other species.

Commissioners in Canyon County, which encompasses Deer Flat, are hoping to put the refuge’s Lake Lowell beyond the reach of federal managers by designating it a local historic property.

So far, there are four management proposals from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Three of them would restrict boating on Lake Lowell. And while this oasis in the drylands of western Idaho has sustained local widlife and migratory birds for more than a century, it’s also a refuge for generations of humans who enjoy motorboating and water-skiing there on hot summer days.

“The federal government should not be coming and telling us they are going to close it down because it’s a refuge for birds and frogs and fish. Give me a break,” says Jim Wilkey, an outdoor enthusiast from the nearby town of Star. “It was never built or designed to be a refuge in the first place and secondly if they really need a refuge…put your refuge someplace else.”

Wilkey is technically correct about the lake’s original intent. The man-made body of water was built as a reservoir to benefit western Idaho’s early population of white settlers more than a century ago. But within a month of its completion in 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt designated as a wildlife refuge.

Today, federal law protects these refuges’ dual roles as habitat for birds, fish and other species, and as places for humans to recreate. Deer Flat is one of more than a dozen national wildlife refuges in the Pacific Northwest being assigned new management plans.

Among those refuges in the region, only Deer Flat features a lake where recreation includes power-boating and water-skiing. And that’s a big reason for much of the controversy surrounding it now.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Deer Flat is under the management of Jennifer Brown-Scott. She says there is a fine line between public access and protecting the hundreds of species who live at the lake and migratory birds that breed there.

Brown-Scott says her agency expected some push back. She says the public response is helping the service develop a 15-year plan for the refuge.

Wildlife refuges: finding the balance

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with taking into consideration six priority uses for wildlife refuges as they determine how best to manage them into the future:

  • hunting

  • fishing

  • wildlife photography

  • wildlife observation

  • environmental education

  • interpretation

Four options for managing Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge are available for review on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website. Public Comment on these four will be accepted through July 29. Additional public comment periods will also be taken in the coming months.

“There was going to be some issues where we had non-wildlife-dependent recreational activities,” she says. “We had to figure out how to put those on the landscape or if we even could in a way that would not detract from our wildlife-dependent activities or from our wildlife or wildlife resources.”

Among those activities being reconsidered are motorized boating and water-skiing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it needs to determine whether that has any kind of negative impact on fish and wildlife at Lake Lowell.

“The reality is that there are no studies at all on Lake Lowell to prove that we are having a negative impact on the wildlife,” says Steve Jones of the Idaho Bass Federation. “There are a lot of long-term residents and even some wildlife biologists that have lived here for many years that contradict their supposition that we are doing anything detrimental.”

Jones was among more than a hundred who participated in a July rally to voice their concerns about losing boating access. Area resident and outdoorsman Jim Price attended the rally. He says he is concerned over one of four potential plans being discussed that would make the entire lake a no-wake zone. That effectively bans any power boats other than those using trolling motors.

“The only way that they know that there is discontent with what they are proposing is for people like us to speak up,” he says.

Brown-Scott says her agency appreciates the concern and is currently taking public comment to help them draft a final plan to be enacted in July of 2012. Federal law says wildlife comes first — but it also has some leeway for public access.

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