Against the backdrop of media coverage of the re-established Southern Utah National Monument boundaries a couple weeks ago, I took a trip to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge looking for ducks. The discussions surrounding how big the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments should be covers a swath of angsts, including addressing tribal concerns, meeting outdoor recreation desires, fulfilling rancher’s needs, and the importance of state rights. These discussions are much different than those that occurred nearly 100 years ago when waterfowl hunters led efforts to protect the Great Salt Lake’s wetlands.
Utah was a much different place in 1900 when the census counted only 276,000 people. The state had just become a state and was subject to a growing demand along the Wasatch Front for more agricultural products. To meet this demand, land along the east side of the Great Salt Lake was being drained and converted to farmland. As more water was diverted, conditions became ripe for bacteria producing a deadly toxin that causes ducks to succumb to botulism. This toxin killed millions of ducks during the early 1900s.
If these weren’t big enough problems, hunters could sell the birds they harvested. The last quarter century of the 1800s saw approximately 200,000 ducks shot each year that were shipped to eastern markets. To protect opportunities to hunt ducks and geese, many wealthy hunters took to buying wetlands to serve as duck clubs. These problems and their primary solution, made the average hunter feel as if they would soon have no place to pursue waterfowl.
Hunter demand served as the nexus for public marsh creation in Utah in the 1920s and followed state and federal pathways. Utah bought land, constructed dikes and acquired water rights for the 12,000 acre Public Shooting Grounds in 1926. It is argued this was the first state waterfowl management area in the nation. The US Congress then passed legislation in 1928 that established the 60,420 acre Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Over time, purchases have expanded this refuge to 77,102 acres.
There was considerable state support for this public refuge as the legislation allowed up to 40% of these lands to remain open to hunters. As dike construction finished, however, the federal government suggested the entire area would be closed to hunting. The state took exception to this, and a compromise resulted in 20% of the land being open to hunters. Only now, after over 90 years of existence, has the amount of refuge open to hunters neared 40%.
There are individuals concerned that having a refuge open to hunters goes against what makes these places valuable. This thought process overlooks that most refuges are closed or have limited access by humans during the important breeding and rearing seasons. The 567 national wildlife refuges covering 95 million acres of land have been successful at protecting populations of waterfowl, gamebirds and big game. The existence of these lands is in part why populations of game species are doing comparatively well.
It is the species people don’t think about whose habitat often goes unprotected. For example, you rarely hear the area covered by the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument is home to 660 native bee species. This is only slightly less than the number of bees native to the eastern United States.
The habitat at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge has changed many times over the last 100 years. It started as the open delta of the Bear River which was diked and converted to wetlands in the 1930s. These dikes were breached in the 1980s as the Great Salt Lake level rose. As these waters receded, the dikes were rebuilt. Now, just two decades later, saline waters are farther from these dikes than they have ever been. In addition to a declining lake level, the expansion of Phragmites (the tall reed that overshadows the cattails and bulrush) poses a threat to hunters and waterfowl using the refuge.
A goal of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is to “Restore and manage Bear River deltaic wetland habitats and river corridor units to emulate historic natural hydrology, where possible, to provide migration and breeding habitat for a diversity of waterfowl, wading birds and shorebirds.” To meet this goal the next few years will see the refuge altering flow strategies to increase breeding habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl while limiting the growth of Phragmites. These changes could increase hunter opportunities; especially those of us who like to walk.
We might not all agree on when and were public lands are needed, but when it comes to waterfowl populations and places to hunt them, neither would be doing well in the continental United States in the absence of public wetlands.