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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Elk, habitat top worries at Turnbull

Facing threats by hungry elk and encroaching homes, officials at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge are considering a plan to purchase surrounding wetlands as well as allow limited elk hunting inside the Cheney-area sanctuary.

The measures are part of a long-term conservation plan proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the 15,000-acre waterfowl and wildlife oasis near Cheney. The public has until Aug. 13 to comment on the proposal, which will be finalized by the end of the year and will guide management of the refuge for the next 15 years.

Although there’s no guarantee Congress will fund the measures, swift action is needed to safeguard the refuge, said Nancy Curry, refuge manager. “We do need to do something,” Curry said, adding that the lingering drought has added a special sense of urgency because it is quickly erasing critical feeding and nesting areas for waterfowl.

“In a sense some of it’s like a dream plan,” she said. “You hope some of it might be implemented.”

If the plan is approved, the Fish and Wildlife Service would seek to purchase up to 12,000 acres of surrounding forest and wetlands from private landowners. The sales would be strictly voluntary, Curry said. The agency also wants to work with landowners on 45,000 neighboring acres to enhance weed control, forestry practices and wetland preservation.

Although hunting is allowed at more than half of the nation’s 545 wildlife refuges, the practice remains banned at Turnbull. Previous proposals to allow deer hunting on the refuge have been met with widespread public opposition, Curry said. But more and more elk are flocking to the area and munching on plants and trees that are critical food and nesting habitat for waterfowl.

Upward of 350 elk can be found on the refuge during hunting season, Curry said. If a hunt is approved – the earliest would likely be in fall 2007 – Curry said it will likely be limited in scale.

“It’s not going to have a huge impact on the number of animals. We’re hoping that just opening the refuge up would stir the animals and move them around,” Curry said.

A youth waterfowl hunt is also included in the proposal, though Curry said she has more reservations about allowing such a hunt to occur. Additional habitat would first be needed to boost waterfowl populations, she said.

The list of creatures living in Turnbull reads like a passenger list for an Inland Northwest version of Noah’s Ark. There are 60-some species of ducks, geese, swans and songbirds. The refuge’s ponderosa pine and aspen forests are also home to elk, moose, coyote, deer, porcupine, badgers, bats and Columbian ground squirrels. A good number of humans are also lured into the refuge – last year about 40,000 people visited Turnbull, including many schoolchildren, according to statistics kept by the refuge.

With so much development in the area, expanding the boundaries of the refuge should be a top priority, said Marian Frobe, a longtime volunteer at the refuge and past president of Friends of Turnbull. Thousands of acres of wetlands surrounding Turnbull have already been drained and transformed into hayfields and homes. Each day Spokane seems to inch closer to the boundaries of the refuge, Frobe said.

“That’s the worst fear: that Spokane is going to subdivide all the way to the refuge,” she said. “Turnbull is on a critical corridor. We get a lot of birds that come through that need a place to stop. If the water goes and the habitat goes, we’ll lose the birds.”

Frobe opposes allowing waterfowl hunting, but she said she could reluctantly support a limited elk hunt on the refuge.

“I don’t think the ducks are going to overrun the refuge,” said Frobe, a Spokane retiree. “Personally, I hate to see hunting there, but I can understand it if they’re allowed to control it to the point the elk don’t overrun.”

Although neighboring farmers once complained about crop losses from the high concentration of hungry elk near the refuge, many have now begun to profit off the animals by leasing their land to well-heeled hunters, said Howard Ferguson, district biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Many elk still manage to get through the ring of hunters into the safety of Turnbull. Ferguson said something needs to be done to protect the refuge from becoming overrun.

“There is too high of a density,” Ferguson said. “Eventually the population will be affected and crash. The forage will be limited and of such poor quality. It will also affect the deer and birds.”