About 20,000 acres of the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, as seen from an airplane piloted by Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight, already is designated wilderness. In a new management plan under consideration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to change the boundaries of proposed wilderness in other locations within the refuge.
July 9, 2011
Written by KARL PUCKETT
A proposed management plan for the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge would modify proposed wilderness areas — reducing acreage in the preferred alternative — and put fire and cows to work to enhance wildlife habitat.
The plan for the refuge — the second largest refuge in the Lower 48 — drew about 25,000 comments from the public.
"Our public is broader now than it was 20 years ago," said Bill Berg, a deputy project leader for the refuge, which he viewed from an airplane last month, when the rain-saturated landscape was as green as Ireland.
Comments submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the CMR refuge, were submitted from as far away as St. Louis, and ranged from support for removing the land from refuge status to designating it all as wilderness.
Berg said lobbying campaigns by interest groups contributed to the high number of comments, but several factors are putting the plan in the spotlight.
"It's wide-open prairie country," Berg said. "It's wild, too."
The refuge, named after famed Western painter Charlie Russell, is renowned for its hunting, with about 150,000 hunter-use days recorded each year.
Ranchers who graze cattle in the CMR refuge have a stake in the plan's outcome, and conservation organizations want more of the prairie preserved as wilderness.
Stretching 125 miles along the Missouri River, the CMR refuge draws approximately 250,000 visitors annually, with hunting, wildlife photography and fishing being top attractions.
The area, first designated as a game range in 1936 and jointly managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service for 40 years, was changed to a wildlife refuge in 1976 under sole management of the USFWS, with wildlife conservation the main mission.
The new management plan, once approved, will guide activities on the refuge for the next 15 years.
Currently, there are 155,000 acres of proposed wilderness in 15 separate areas in the 1.1 million-acre refuge, which was inventoried for potential wilderness in the late 1970s.In its preferred alternative, six proposed wilderness units — Antelope Creek, Crooked Creek, Alkali Creek, Wagon Coulee, West Hell Creek and Sheep Creek — would be expanded by 18,559 acres.
But 26,744 acres in the Beauchamp Creek, West Beauchamp Creek and East Hell Creek units would be eliminated from wilderness consideration under that alternative.
The net reduction of 8,100 acres is opposed by the Wilderness Society, which supports a different alternative that would add 25,000 acres to proposed wilderness.
"Prairie wilderness is very unique," said John Todd, the Wilderness Society's Northern Prairie Campaign coordinator.
Less than 1 percent of the nation's native grassland is protected by wilderness, he said. The UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge — which falls within the larger CMR refuge — has 20,000 acres of designated wilderness, and is one of a handful of grasslands protected by wilderness nationwide, Todd said.
The conservation group sees the CMR refuge, along with the neighboring Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, as a rare opportunity to add federally designated prairie wilderness on the northern plains, Todd said.
Laurie Riley, coordinator of the Missouri River Conservation Districts Council, said the council opposes the expansion of wilderness boundaries.
The council is made up of 15 conservation districts in 14 counties along the Missouri River.
There are 60 permits to graze cattle on the CMR refuge, and because of that, Riley said, the refuge has a big impact on the economies of the surrounding counties.
"The restrictions could create an additional burden on grazing practices, so additional wilderness would be a concern," Riley said.
The USFWS was charged with studying whether the proposed wilderness areas still met wilderness criteria, Berg said.
Off-road travel and development on nonrefuge lands adjacent to some of the original proposed wilderness prompted the service to propose withdrawing them from consideration, Berg said.
"Our feeling was these characteristics, even though they were there initially, they are not there to the extent they were then," Berg said.
In the areas where proposed wilderness would be added, the service has purchased private holdings over the last 25 years, making them more suitable for wilderness designation, he said.
The proposed wilderness designations in the preferred alternative could change, Berg added.
The agency still is reviewing the public comments with a final decision on the plan expected by September 2012.
Some groups have questioned whether the agency has the authority to change the original wilderness recommendations, Berg said. That question still needs to be answered before the final plan is approved.
It then would take an act of Congress to designate whatever wilderness proposals end up in the plan.
Berg said management in the 155,000 acres of existing proposed wilderness is more restrictive — only hiking is allowed and no motorized use.
People usually think of mountains or timber as wilderness, but the proposed wilderness areas in the CMR refuge are as wild as any lands found in Montana, Berg said.
"This is where the bison used to cross the Missouri River historically," said Berg at UL Bend.
Wilderness isn't the only part of the plan that's prompting interest from the public.
The plan also calls for more use of "prescriptive" cattle grazing and fire to improve habitat for big game, such as elk, and migratory birds, including meadowlarks.
That would lead to changes in the current grazing system, in which permits allow grazing to occur annually in the same areas during the same seasons. Those potential changes concern the Missouri River Conservation Districts Council.
"That raises a flag for current permit holders because permit holders need predictability," Riley said. "They need to know where their cows are going to be and for what duration their cows are going to be on the lands."
In some areas, vegetation could be better controlled with grazing than fire, which carries a risk of getting out of control, Riley said.
"We'd like to see grazing as an alternative to prescribed burning," she said.
Though it opposes the reduction of proposed wilderness, the Wilderness Society's Todd said the group supports the prescribed grazing and fire plans, adding that livestock grazing must be secondary to wildlife habitat.
The preferred plan also calls for permanent or seasonal road closures on 23 miles of road to encourage movement of animals or facilitate hunting. No significant changes affecting hunting are proposed, Berg said.
Access issues also prompted a lot of comments, he added.