Resource Management

Prescribed Burn

You would think that the main function of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be managing wildlife. It really isn't; it's really about managing habitats. Oh sure, we deal directly with wildlife all the time—mist netting and banding birds, relocating yellow-bellied marmots, counting elk—but the job is really about ensuring the right habitat is there for wildlife. Provide the right habitat, and the animals will usually do just fine. All the staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—biologists, maintenance workers, managers, administrative staff, writers and planners, fire crews, visitor services employees, volunteers—have as their ultimate goal to provide for wildlife and their wild homes.

Did you know that in this country, wildlife is owned by the states, whereas habitats are managed by the agency overseeing that particular area? That means that on national wildlife refuges, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is a federal agency, primarily works to ensure that wildlife habitats are good for wildlife. It conserves and enhances wildlife populations and their habitats, but it does not set overall fishing and hunting limits or sell hunting licenses. The FWS gives its input to the state for consideration in setting population and harvest goals, but the state determines the outcomes. A national wildlife refuge can decide whether or not to allow hunting, or it can set regulations that are more restrictive than those of the state to protect wildlife, but it does not set the seasons or harvest limits.

How does the FWS manage habitats? Columbia National Wildlife Refuge has several methods it employs and in differing combinations depending on the area.

Management of Marsh Units

Wetland marsh units were designed to be managed by means of water control structures and culverts. The marsh units connect to each other by these devices, so water can flow from one pond to another. The proper timing of flooding is important. Units used by Sandhill cranes and geese in the spring must have the correct amount of water for roosting, but the same units must be dry in summer to enable important wildlife plants to set seed for the next year. Because Columbia NWR is a stop on the Pacific Flyway, an important migration path, plants that nourish weary migrants, as well as year-round residents, are grown in the marsh units. Invasive marsh vegetation—such as phragmites, bulrush and cattails—are burned, mowed, disked, or sprayed with herbicides, depending upon the season of year and weather conditions. Sometimes a combination of treatments is used. In addition, the marsh units are closed to the public for parts of the year to provide sanctuary for migrating waterfowl.


Columbia NWR has weeds, and they are treated in several ways. Weeds along roadways, in public areas and in marshes may be mowed and/or sprayed with herbicides. Marshes hosting invasive weeds may be disked or burned by the refuge's fire crew when weather conditions and the moisture content of the weeds are right, or they may be drowned by an inundation of water. Sometimes a combination of treatments is needed to curtail the spread of persistent weeds.

Agricultural Fields

Columbia NWR manages 753 acres of agricultural fields that are planted with crops that provide high-calorie foods for migrating and wintering waterfowl and other birds. Cooperating farmers work these fields. Typical crops include alfalfa, timothy, winter wheat (forage), corn, wheat, barley and buckwheat. Farmers use 75% of the acreage for their own profit and leave the other 25% for wildlife. Waste grain in the farmers' sections of the fields also provides feed for wildlife. These crops attract thousands of lesser Sandhill cranes, Canada and snow geese and ducks in spring.


Areas that have been burned by wildfire, or sometimes by prescribed burning, may be re-seeded or planted with native plants to prevent invasive or noxious weeds growing up in the denuded soil. Nature hates a vacuum, so something will grow there, and without intervention, it will usually be weeds!


Finally, because wildlife comes first in national wildlife refuges, Columbia NWR leaves certain important wildlife areas closed year-round to prevent disturbance to waterfowl. Other areas are closed for parts of the year to allow for undisturbed roosting of Sandhill cranes in the spring and for deserved rest and sanctuary to waterfowl after the hunting season.