FWS to revise plans for wetland

Great Falls Tribune

by Erin Madison

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it will modify a proposed plan that critics say would have resulted in Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge going dry.

“We have heard concerns expressed by many constituents with interests in the long-term future of this important resource,” a FWS official wrote in a letter to Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus. “Based on input we received through the public process, we intend to modify the proposed action.”

Currently, water is pumped into Benton Lake. FWS, which manages Benton Lake, released a draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan in March for the refuge complex, outlining the management of the area for the next 15 years. The preferred alternative in the draft plan called for pumping to cease and for the wetland basin to receive only natural run-off.

Benton Lake is a popular hunting and wildlife viewing area north of Great Falls. The wetland attracts hundreds of thousands of birds in yearly migration and also serves as important summer breeding grounds.

Critics argued that in most years the preferred plan would result in Benton Lake being dry, which would diminish its value as habitat for wetland

birds. The draft plan aimed to deal with some issues the wildlife refuge is facing, including invasive species and a build-up of selenium — a mineral that can lead to birth defects in birds.

But critics argued that there were better solutions that didn’t require the entire wetland to go dry.

Tester and Baucus, along with groups including Russell Country Sportsmen’s Association, Ducks Unlimited, Montana Audubon and others urged FWS to reconsider the plan.

“We fully recognize the proposal to restore natural hydrologic regimes would impact historic use of the refuge by wildlife and people,” Noreen Walsh, deputy regional director of FWS’s Mountain Prairie Region, wrote in a letter to Montana’s senators. “In an effort to be responsive to concerns raised by our public about those impacts, we are actively working to identify other potential alternative strategies to address the real and mounting management challenges posed by increased selenium and other alternations to habitat on the refuge.” John Borgreen, past president of Russell Country Sportsmen and a member of Tester’s Montana Sportsmen’s Advisory Panel, was happy to hear that FWS will revise its proposed plan.

“I’m very pleased and encouraged,” he said.

Tester and Baucus were also happy about FWS’s decision.

“Benton Lake is an important spot for wildlife,” Tester said. “Working together to hammer out a long-term solution will protect the refuge for birds and Montana’s sportsmen and women, and I look forward to the new proposal that will come from this work.”

“Benton Lake is a special place for all of us, and that’s why we pushed for a Montana- made solution that will keep it that way,” Baucus said. “This is a win for Montana sportsmen and women.”

Jim McCollum, a member of Russell Country Sportsmen who also served as the refuge manager from 1991 until he retired in 2000, said part of the frustration with the proposed plan was that FWS seemed to completely ignore the public comments.

With this most recent action, FWS is responding to what the public had to say, “and that’s a good thing,” McCollum said.

He hopes going forward FWS will create a working group of users or representatives from user groups to come up with a balanced plan for wildlife and the public.

“I’m going to be looking forward to seeing what kind of collaborative effort there is now to come up with a long-term plan,” he said.

Borgreen agreed.

“I’m just really hopeful we can sit down and everybody will work together,” he said.

The letter from U.S. Fish and Wildlife didn’t outline the process going forward, and calls from the Tribune seeking comment from Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge weren’t returned by press time.

McCollum hopes the process to create a new comprehensive plan is swift.

“This has been an ongoing deal for four years, and it’s time to come up with a plan,” he said. “The longer it goes on the further behind the eight ball they’re getting for management.”

Walsh did say in her letter FWS plans to work with stakeholders to develop a new management plan. “By engaging with our professional colleagues at Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks and with others in the conservation community, we will seek to develop an alternative solution to address the habitat and containment problems at Benton Lake with less impact on recreational use,” she wrote. “We will not rush to a final decision and will approach this process in a deliberate and transparent manner.”

“We are going to hold them to that,” said Andrea Helling, spokeswoman for Tester’s office.