Hunting may be authorized within the boundaries of Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge next year for the first time since the refuge was established, primarily for migratory birds, in 1937.
After eight years of discussion and study, Turnbull officials on Monday released a draft 2009 hunting plan for public comment. The plan calls for:
•Elk hunts in a portion of the refuge by special permit primarily to reduce damage a herd of roughly 350 animals is inflicting on refuge habitat.
•Waterfowl hunts limited to designated blinds during the state’s youth-only, two-day waterfowl season in September, when use of the refuge by migratory birds is light.
State and federal scientists say the elk hunts, which would be among the most restrictive in the state, are needed to help restore refuge habitat.
The hunts would disperse elk, making them more visible to non-hunting wildlife watchers and helping curb winter damage on surrounding farms and ranches.
The hunting program also would follow the 1997 National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, which requires refuge managers to provide for public uses, including hunting where compatible.
Hunting already is allowed on about 315 of the 548 national wildlife refuges in the U.S. and territories, including the Columbia Refuge in central Washington and the Kootenai Refuge in North Idaho.
Proposals for hunting at Turnbull presented to the public in the early 2000s drew considerable opposition – and Turnbull manger Nancy Curry hasn’t exactly been an advocate for hunting on the refuge.
However, according to the hunt plan document, landowers surrounding Turnbull “have been vocal supporters of the proposal to offer elk hunting.”
Key to the proposal is a study documenting significant damage elk are doing to refuge habitat.
Researchers who put elk-proof fence around habitat plots proved the serious impacts elk have had on native vegetation, such as regenerating aspen, a plant that’s important not only to larger animals, but also to songbirds, according to Mike Rule, refuge biologist.
Elk numbers have simply exceeded the carrying capacity of the land, state biologists said.
Following reintroductions to Eastern Washington in the early 1900s, elk first showed up in the refuge in the late 1950s, according to refuge records. The numbers have been building since the elk established themselves on the refuge in the 1980s.
Since 1995, the herd that harbors in and around Turnbull during fall has grown about 35 percent to a relatively stable number of roughly 350, according to surveys, plus aerial counts conducted over the past four years by Howard Ferguson, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department biologist.
Most of the elk have learned to hunker in areas of the refuge closed to the public to avoid hunters outside the refuge during the fall hunting seasons, Ferguson said.
Later, the elk spread out during winter to feed on agricultural crops and haystacks, he said, citing a study on radio-collared elk that began in 2000.
The hunting plan would allow 74-99 special permits to be issued. The hunters would be spread out through the archery muzzleloader, modern rifle and late master hunter seasons that run from September into December.
Hunter success rates for special hunts vary widely, although Ferguson guesses it could be in the range of 25-50 percent.
“These elk won’t just stand around with hunters in there,” said Ferguson. “Not all the refuge hunters will get elk, but it’s likely that hunting success will go up for hunters outside the refuge.”
Elk hunting initially would be limited to five units that cover up to 7,260 acres of the 16,017-acre refuge. In areas that approach places open to the public, only short-range archery or muzzleloader hunting would be allowed.
Waterfowl hunting would be limited to blinds on 140 acres of the north shore of Upper Turnbull Slough.
With the exception of a few disabled hunters who may be allowed to drive on established roads, other hunters would be required to park and walk into the refuge hunting areas from designated spots.
The proposal would allow a successful permit hunter to bring one companion into the refuge after the hunt to help retrieve the elk.
Perhaps hunters should push to have up to two companions for game retrieval, especially considering the stipulation that they must be out of the refuge within 2.5 hours after dark. Two men on foot are not likely to quarter and pack out an elk shot in the last hour of hunting time within 2.5 hours.
The elk permits would be issued through the normal Washington Fish and Wildlife Department lottery drawings next spring. Most of the permits would be for antlerless elk, except for two or three permits for bull elk.
The plan released Monday called for offering both of those permits through a raffle that would benefit the Friends of Turnbull non-profit group. That provision was revoked on the refuge Web site on Wednesday after Fish and Wildlife officials informed the refuge staff that state law allows the department to raffle only one Eastern Washington elk permit a year for fundraising.
In addition to normal costs for the state’s hunting licenses, tag and application fees, the refuge would charge permit hunters a $25 access fee.
That’s a price many sportsmen would gladly pay to help improve habitat on Turnbull and a chance to put a few hundred pounds of free-range meat in their freezers.