Long delayed conservation plan for Delaware refuge nearly ready

The comprehensive conservation plan for Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge has been more than five years in the making. 

Covering 10,000 acres of ecologically sensitive land in Sussex County, Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge serves as an oasis for migratory birds and other animals who take advantage of all the wetlands have to offer.   The refuge averages 80,000 ducks during migration, with tens of thousands of shore birds stopping off to refuel at the wetlands.  The area draws large numbers of human visitors too, as many as 90,000 in a good year.

While the the refuge has been preserving and protecting the habitat since it was established in 1963, the site is now facing serious threats to its makeup.  In the 1980’s, the refuge created several manmade freshwater impoundments which helped diversify the bird population that could benefit from the land.  “We were managing the water levels in the system to achieve the desired vegetation component for the bird species and the migrations and it was very successful,” says refuge Manager Michael Stroeh.  

But now, a series of breaches along the shoreline has allowed salt water to mix in, dramatically changing the makeup of the refuge.  “We’ve had the collapse of that freshwater system, and we’ve got this conversion going on.  Ideally in that conversion, you would like, hope to go back to a marsh, a salt marsh.  But what’s happened is, the system appears to be so degraded that it’s actually converting to open water.” 

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Combine that conversion with the threat of sea level rise looming in the future, and the possibility of acres and acres of open water in the refuge, it would drastically reduce the area’s ability to deal with flood waters.  “When it goes to open water, you have no storm surge protection, you have no flood protection, you have no habitat.  So we’re losing all those ecosystem services that wetlands provide.  So that’s what’s happened here, and we’re going to have continued flooding.”  Stroeh says if there is a complete conversion to open water, “there will be a definite reduction in birds, because you’re going to lose that habitat value.”  

Refuge leaders have been working on a plan to fix the problem, but it has been a long time coming.  “Too long,” says Delaware Congressman John Carney, D-Del.  “Way overdue.”  The Democrat joined the rest of Delaware’s Congressional Delegation in writing a letter to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pushing for the plan to protect the refuge to be completed.  “It’s a very serious and complicated matter that needs to be addressed,” says Carney.

A draft of that plan was originally due in 2007, and now in 2012, the lack of an action plan is frustrating.  “We need a master plan to figure out which direction to go now.  Frankly, we needed it a couple of years ago, it’s five years in the making or beyond five years in the making.”  

Stroeh admits the concerns over the time it’s taken to put the plan together are justified.  “There was a lot of delays, there was a lot of concerns from our public, the communities are very concerned with the changes that are happening with this wetlands system and they have a right to be very concerned.”  He says the development of the plan got sidetracked due to litigation filed by local land owners near the refuge.  Once development of the plan got back on the radar, the scope of the problem facing the refuge had grown.  So instead of developing an environmental assessment as part of the plan, refuge leaders are now working on an environmental impact statement, which is more comprehensive.

The plan, which totals about 1,000 pages, is expected to finally be completed in May.  And once they decide how to protect the wetlands, they’ll have to decide how to pay for it.  “All options for restoring these wetlands are extremely expensive, and that’s probably going to be our biggest challenge is finding the funding to actually take care of the situation,” says Stroeh.  Congressman Carney agrees, “I think that is where the rub comes in.  It’s a balance between how much money you’re going to spend and on what.  And what the result will be.  Balancing off people who’ve built there on private land, balancing off the federal ownership of the refuge and the needs of the wildlife, and of the natural circumstances there.”

Once the plan is published, there will be a series of public meetings to get input from the public.  There will also be an open house held at the refuge for the community to come in and see how the plan would be implemented.

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