Bird-watchers, beware of hunt

A patchwork of hunting and no-hunting areas in the Nisqually Delta has been melded into more easily defined boundaries for the upcoming waterfowl hunt.
A patchwork of hunting and no-hunting areas in the Nisqually Delta has been melded into more easily defined boundaries for the upcoming waterfowl hunt. The Olympian

When portions of Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge open to duck and goose hunters for the first time ever this fall, many of them will already be familiar with the territory.

The 191 acres of refuge tidelands within the new hunting boundaries have been hunted illegally for years, state and federal officials acknowledged.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tidelands sanctioned for hunting adjoin 600 acres of state Department of Fish and Wildlife tidelands where hunting has been allowed.

“It’s been a difficult situation enforcing hunting on the tidelands with the patchwork ownership,” said Don Kraege, waterfowl program manager for the state agency. “This is an attempt to square up the boundaries.”

The new boundaries will be easier to post and enforce, agreed refuge manager Jean Takekawa.

The refuge area open to boat-access hunting is on the northern perimeter of the 3,000-acre refuge between the mouth of McAllister Creek and the Nisqually River.

The 2010 hunting season, which opens with a youth hunt for ducks and geese Sept. 25-26 and continues off and on for all licensed hunters through Jan. 30, will force temporary closures of the new refuge boardwalk. The boardwalk, which is under construction near McAllister Creek, is scheduled for completion in the late fall or early winter.

The mile-long boardwalk extends out into the tidelands reclaimed last year when a dike built in the early 1900s was removed as part of the largest estuary restoration project in Puget Sound. The $2.7 million boardwalk is eagerly anticipated by bird-watchers and other nature lovers who lost access to the Brown Dike Trail when the dike was breached last year.

“The boardwalk closures are disappointing,” noted Black Hills Audubon chapter president Sam Merrill. “A lot of the best time to watch waterfowl is in the winter.”

The Brown Dike Trail also was closed during hunting season to avoid conflicts between hunters and others.

During the hunting season, the boardwalk will remain open out to the McAllister Creek viewing platform, which is about one-quarter mile of boardwalk access, Takekawa said. The Twin Barns Loop Trail and 0.5-mile Nisqually Estuary Trail will remain open during hunting season.

Merrill questioned whether it makes sense to keep promoting duck hunting in such a popular bird-watching area.

“It seems like a topic for negotiations with the state,” he said.

Not likely, said Kraege.

“We’re very committed to hunting out there,” he said. It’s one of the few places in South Sound where boat-access waterfowl hunting can take place in a lightly populated area, he said.

Historically, the Nisqually Delta was hunted more heavily than present day, Kraege said. But it’s not unusual for 20 or more hunting parties to use the area on a weekend.

“It’s a specialized hunt, because you need a good boat and you have to watch the weather,” he said.

Waterfowl frequenting the area include wigeons, mallards, green-winged teals, pintails and geese.

Hunting is one of six priority public uses identified by Congress in the Refuge Improvement Act of 1997. A new comprehensive plan adopted for the Nisqually refuge in 2004 called on the refuge to provide a waterfowl hunting program.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com