Camping, hunting changes being mulled for Columbia National Wildlife Refuge

OTHELLO -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing a new management plan for the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, which could mean changes for campers, hunters and anglers.

It has released a draft of a 15-year management plan for the 29,596-acre refuge just south of the Potholes Reservoir in Grant and Adams County. The refuge includes wetlands that attract birds, including Sandhill cranes.

Fish and Wildlife proposes three alternatives for management of the refuge in the draft plan, and the final plan is expected to be a combination of alternatives two and three. The first alternative is to keep management the same, although all three alternatives would end overnight camping at the refuge.

Alternative two would focus more of the refuge's budget on research to promote wildlife and on replacement of invasive plants, such as cheatgrass, with native vegetation.

Alternative three would provide more immediate benefits for those enjoying the outdoors at the refuge, such as expanded hunting.

Camping is proposed to be discontinued at Soda Lake Campground, which is not far from the Potholes Reservoir, and at Bluebird Campground to the south.

Since legislation was passed in 1997, refuges have had six clearly defined focuses for use -- hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, wildlife photography, environmental education and interpretation, said Kelly Chase, the Columbia National Refuge manager.

Camping longer is no considered an appropriate activity at the refuge because good roads and nearby communities make camping unnecessary to enjoy the six activities defined as priorities in 1997, she said. In addition, the refuge is closed at night.

Under the second management alternative, the two campgrounds would be restored to wildlife habitat. Under the third alternative, Soda Lake Campground would be converted for day use and Bluebird Campground would be available by permit for day use as an educational site.

Other proposals in the second alternative include eliminating horseback riding and bicycling, which now are allowed only on main roads. Those activities spread seeds for invasive species, which increases spraying costs and could be a safety concern in the future.

Fish stocking would be discontinued, in part because of concerns about how other species are affected and concerns over the introduction of nonnative species.

A lottery that pre-assigned waterfowl hunting blinds would be discontinued and permanent blinds would be removed. Hunters could still use portable blinds.

In addition, Morgan Lake Road would be closed to overnight travel.

Under the third alternative, fish stocking would continue except at lakes where northern leopard frogs might be reintroduced. The frogs then would have less competition for food.

Opportunities for waterfowl and big game hunting would be substantially expanded by opening new areas, providing for additional weapons and adding additional youth hunt days, areas and seasons. The lottery for use of waterfowl blinds would be retained.

Horses and bicycles would continue to be allowed, Morgan Lake Road would remain open 24 hours and an interpretive trail would be developed within the Drumheller Channels National Natural Landmark.

Under the second and third alternatives, the Sandhill Crane Festival would remain a priority for Fish and Wildlife.

Comments about the draft management plan are due by Aug. 28. Send them to mcriver@fws.gov or to Dan Haas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 64 Maple St., Burbank, WA 99323.

A final draft is expected in the winter.

A copy of the draft plan, called the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Assessment, is available at www.fws.gov/columbia/management.html. Copies on CD are available by calling 509-546-8333.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com