Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge represents a small, but ecologically important, section of the Mississippi River watershed. As such, the refuge faces numerous management challenges and jurisdictional conflicts on its 241,000 acres that stretch south from the Chippewa River in Wisconsin to northwestern Illinois.

The refuge crosses four states; two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers districts; 11 locks and dams for navigation; and seven Congressional districts. It is represented by eight U.S. senators; is adjacent to 70 cities/towns; and shares boundaries with railroads, scenic byways, power plants and other public and private lands. Plus, 3.9 million visitors annually have their own perspectives.

Add it together, and it’s a challenging place to manage.

Refuge manager Kevin Foerster is fond of the saying, “Everybody’s in charge, and nobody’s in charge; it’s all about the partnerships.” This complexity came to the forefront last decade during development of the refuge’s comprehensive conservation plan (CCP).

By 2006, after years of debate, thousands of public comments and at least 46 meetings, the CCP was finalized. Almost immediately, the refuge implemented key components, including a furbearer management plan that took a more conservative approach to the taking of otters than the states and designated special management areas for youth trapping. Perhaps the most important change came to regulations regarding areas closed to waterfowl hunting. By 2009, there were 23 such areas or sanctuaries totaling 43,652 acres, compared to the previous 15 areas totaling 44,544 acres. Strategically locating closed areas along the 261– mile refuge is critical to birds along the Mississippi Flyway and keeps hunting compatible with the refuge mission. In many ways, those efforts were as intense as the CCP development.

Former refuge manager Don Hultman, who led the CCP effort, says the ultimate goal was (and always should be) doing right by the resource.

“The [hunting] system in place in 2006 had been virtually unchanged since the late 1950s, despite dramatic changes in refuge habitat and thus bird distribution,” says Hultman. “The changes were sorely needed, but doing so met with loud and sustained opposition. In the end, the birds won.”

The CCP also brought increased awareness of this national treasure— with the public and among states and agencies with jurisdiction along the Upper Mississippi.

“For me, the CCP is the backbone for refuge decision–making,” deputy manager Tim Yager says of the refuge, which includes four administrative districts. “Whether it be reviewing proposals to enhance recreational beaches on refuge lands or evaluating the merits of habitat restoration actions, the CCP forms the basis for nearly all decisions that need to be made by district managers. If a manager needs guidance before making a decision, they can usually find that guidance in the CCP. I use it almost every day.”

“We’re at the halfway point in the life of this CCP,” Foerster says of the document, which is in force until 2021. “Looking back seven years, we’ve seen the maturation of several Friends groups and a better refuge for wildlife and the American people.”

The next seven years will focus on meeting commitments in the CCP, in particular the refuge’s habitat management, forest management and visitor services plans.

Staff members are working hard to engage the public and partners in the process. The goal is to help people connect with the river refuge, so they care about it, and are willing to take action in support of the refuge and the river.

Cindy Samples is visitor services manager at Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, MN, WI, IA and IL.