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Feds rethink river refuge changes

By Todd Richmond

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. -- Hunters could still carry as many shells as they want, campers could still drink and boaters could race along more stretches under scaled-back conservation plans for the upper Mississippi River federal wildlife officials. The revised plans were released Saturday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's new plan represents the latest version of shifting strategies for the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The regulations, which still need final approval, could transform river life by limiting hunting, boating and camping.

The wildlife service has been working for months on the sweeping, $216 million strategies. Officials released a 600-page draft in May, but pulled it back for revisions after nearly 3,000 outdoors lovers showed up at public hearings on the plan in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois to complain about sections of it. Refuge manager Don Hultman said the wildlife service received about 2,400 written comments from the four states as well.

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"I don't think anyone can claim we didn't take their concerns to heart," Hultman said. "It reflects a fine tuning based on the public input. I think that's true to what the process is supposed to be."

More than 3 million people visit the river refuge, which runs about 260 miles from southern Minnesota to northern Illinois. It's home to hundreds of species of plants, fish and birds, including ducks and bald eagles.

The federal Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act of 1997 requires every national refuge to be managed according to their mission to protect fish, wildlife and plants. The act calls for every refuge to have a new conservation plan in place by 2012.

Some of the key revisions include:

The first plan set up a 25-shell limit for hunters in hopes of discouraging "skybusting," the practice of shooting excessively at out-of-range waterfowl that often results in crippled ducks that can't be retrieved. The new plan eliminates the limit. Hultman said the idea "wasn't popular at all."

Originally, camping would have been limited to main channel islands and shorelines, anyone with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher would be banned from camping, and district managers would have been able to declare some beaches booze-free.

The new plan lets people camp wherever they want in the refuge and wipes out both alcohol provisions, although managers would still be able to remove campers if they get too rowdy. The revisions also call for four more full-time agents to patrol the refuge.

The first plan would have added six more no-hunting zones to the refuge, for a total of 13 -- seven exist already -- encompassing 5,322 acres. The new plan adds just three new no-hunting zones, for a total of 10 encompassing 3,973 acres, with most near the McGregor, Iowa, area, Hultman said. The original zones were designed around new hiking trails, but the revisions removed the trails, eliminating the need for the no-hunting zones around them, Hultman said.

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The original draft called for adding five new zones where duck hunting would be banned, for a total of 21. The new plan calls for six new zones where duck hunting would be illegal.

The plan also sets up a divided season in one of the zones; the backwater area around McGregor, across from Prairie Du Chien, Wis., would be closed from the opening of duck season through Oct. 31. Then the area would open, and the Wisconsin River delta around Prairie Du Chien would close for the rest of the season.

The first plan called for closing the Wisconsin River delta area permanently, but hunters complained the area was a duck hotbed. Hultman called the split season a compromise.

The original draft set up 16 areas -- covering 14,498 acres -- where boaters could use nothing more powerful than an electric motor to reduce noise. The new plan outlines just six zones covering 1,947 acres, but creates eight no-wake zones covering 10,569 acres. No airboats or hovercraft would be allowed in the no-wake zones from March through October.

Many boaters complained it would take them hours to get up or down the river if they could use only electric motors. Other river users said they wanted quiet.

The wildlife service will conduct nine open houses in cities along the refuge during the next two months. The agency will then draft a final plan, resubmit it to the public for another month, then ship it to regional director Robyn Thorsen in Minneapolis for a final decision.

On the Net:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Upper Mississippi River Refuge planning page: www.fws.gov/midwest/planning/uppermiss/index.html

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BOX: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans a series of open houses about revisions to drafts of new conservation strategies and regulations for the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. Cities and dates have been chosen, but exact locations have yet to be announced.

Stoddard, Wis., 6-8 p.m. Jan. 3

La Crescent, 6-8 p.m. Jan. 5

Onalaska, Wis., 1-4 p.m. Jan. 7

Lansing, Iowa, 6-8 p.m. Jan. 9

Prairie du Chien, Wis., 6-8 p.m. Jan. 10

Savanna, Ill., 6-8 p.m. Jan. 17

Dubuque, Iowa, 6-8 p.m. Jan. 18

Winona, 6-8 p.m. Jan. 23

Wabasha, 6-8 p.m. Jan. 24

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