National Wildlife Refuge System

The Bear River Watershed: “Leading by Example”

By Karen Leggett

photo of bear river refuge
The future of Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah as prime waterfowl habitat depends on managing the entire Bear River watershed.
Credit: Karen Leggett/USFWS

This is the first of two articles about Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge’s watershed conservation plan. A second article, focusing on educational outreach, will appear in the May/June issue of Refuge Update.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah is a highly managed landscape—“the hand of man joining with forces of nature,” in the words of former refuge manager Al Trout, who is on the sidelines cheering as his successor, Bob Barrett, manages that landscape way beyond the refuge boundaries.

The refuge was established in 1928 to preserve migratory bird habitat. Fifty miles of water control structures were built to ensure adequate water for the birds. Trout describes habitat management then as stable, predictable and inside the boundaries. “A classic waterfowl refuge to the nth degree,” says the National Wildlife Refuge Association’s Anne Truslow, “strategically located on the Pacific and Central Flyways, the last stop on the Bear River before the Great Salt Lake.”

In the early 1980s, however, record precipitation caused the Great Salt Lake to rise, overtaking refuge dikes, contaminating freshwater habitat with saline water, destroying the refuge visitor center and forcing the birds elsewhere. Trout was hired to begin the long process of restoration. “The community was hungry to start working on the refuge,” he recalls. A longstanding positive relationship grew between the refuge and its neighbors; breeding habitat was added; existing habitat was restored; and, by 2000, the refuge again supported millions of birds and was a crucial component of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.

When Barrett became refuge manager in 2007, he began assembling the pieces of a puzzle that includes three refuges, two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regions, three states and a 500–mile river. But it is still all about the water. “If we don’t pay attention to our water,” says Barrett, “the future could be scary. We’re looking at doubling the population by 2030 in this area … So we started talking about the watershed.”

The Bear River watershed covers about five million acres. Barrett and others led the development of a Preliminary Project Proposal(PPP) affecting wildlife habitat at refuges in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming (Bear River, Bear Lake and Cokeville Meadows). The PPP calls for using various wildlife management techniques to address conservation needs collaboratively on 2.5 million of those acres.

Thinking on a Landscape Scale

Right now, Barrett has more questions than answers. “Our climate change model tells us that between 2040 and 2060 we’ll be a little warmer, and a lot of precipitation will be rain. What can we do to support wildlife resources in the future? Can we help improve grazing practices? Can we look at residential and commercial development and identify high–risk areas? Is the water allocation policy adequate?”

“Picture a stream,” says Barrett. “It runs into Bear River, which carries its nutrient load to the refuge. If we work in the watershed, we can grow willows along the stream to prevent erosion and prevent animals from grazing right next to the stream, reducing the animal waste that flows into the river. And we’ll do it all by working with landowners interested in easements.”

Barrett hopes a landscape conservation cooperative will provide crucial watershed-wide information, such as the location of critical wildlife habitat areas and the habitat requirements of various species.

One after the other, Trout and Barrett moved Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge into a wildlife conservation leadership position in the watershed. Barrett believes the Service can and should be a major facilitator on landscape-scale projects. “There’s a mind–set among people who want to leave the refuge better than they found it. I’m excited to be able to take action now for the future. We are leading by example.”

Karen Leggett is a writer–editor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.

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Refuge Update March/April 2011

Last updated: April 12, 2011