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Compass: Migratory birds are not at issue with Izembek road - so what is?

Audubon Executive Director Warnock's March 22 compass piece on the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and a proposed King Cove to Cold Bay road emphasizes the importance of the refuge as a stop-over for 3 migrating waterfowl species. He states that he believes that the type of disturbance associated with the proposed road would negatively impact these species. It is not at all clear why he believes this.

The refuge consists of approximately 500 square miles, of which roughly a third is waterfowl habitat. Most of this waterfowl habitat is within Izembek Lagoon on the northside of the refuge. Approximately 2.5 miles of land lie between the south edge of the Izembek Lagoon and the north edge of Cold Bay, which forms part of the southern boundary of the refuge. The latest proposal has the road running approximately one-half mile north of the shores of Cold Bay. This in turn means that the road would be approximately 2 miles south of Izembek Lagoon.

Most Pacific black brant, emperor geese and Steller's eiders are resting and refueling in Izembek Lagoon for about 6 weeks in the fall (Sept-Oct) and 4 weeks in the spring (April-May).

Since the stated principal concern here is the potential disturbance of these three species, one might expect much less concern during the 9 months of the year when most members of these three species are gone -- north to their nesting grounds or south to their winter ranges.

If a gravel road through a small portion of Izembek has a significant impact on visiting waterfowl, wouldn't that mean that there was some visual and/or auditory stimuli from the road or use of such a road reaching the waterfowl on Izembek Lagoon -- is that possible, 2 miles away? Is this really a waterfowl disturbance issue? Most of the waterfowl using this refuge are exposed to much higher levels of disturbance on their nesting grounds to the north, where they and their eggs are taken by subsistence users, and to south on their wintering areas, adjacent to much greater number of roads, traffic and noise -- plus hunting seasons. Thinking about waterfowl reactions to human disturbance, I can't help but recall the mallards back in the 80s and 90s that nested in the ditches along C Street in Anchorage, with the hens and their broods regularly stopping vehicular traffic as they crossed C Street.

If the concern really isn't about disturbance of waterfowl, what is it? If this is a "refuge control of public activity adjacent to the refuge" issue, then don't change the southern boundary of the refuge.

A new road could be kept under refuge control with a big steel gate at both ends. During the nine months when critical waterfowl species were minimally present, the gates could be open, but subject to specific refuge rules of use. During critical fall and spring waterfowl staging periods, if deemed necessary, the gates could be locked, and only opened in an emergency. Any such emergency travel could be under the direct supervision of refuge staff.

Lastly, maybe this is really a Wilderness Act issue because the road would cross the refuge's current wilderness boundary for a few miles. But Congress could adjust the wilderness boundary.

Is there any way that a King Cove to Cold Bay road could be made acceptable to the Department of the Interior? With the recent environmental impact statement recommendation approved by Secretary Sally Jewell, the answer to that question will probably have to wait for a change in the U S Senate's composition and/or for a new president.

Meanwhile, how about a little honesty. Whatever the issue, it has little to do with disturbance of waterfowl.

Jim Lieb is a wildlife biologist, retired after 25 years with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He lives in Palmer and writes both technical reports and articles for popular publication.



By JIM LIEB