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Vandals cause thousands of dollars in damage on refuge

Vandalism can be as common as Canada goose goslings on the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge each spring.

5/16/12 (Wed)

By Caroline Downs

Vandalism can be as common as Canada goose goslings on the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge each spring.

And spring 2012 is no exception, with an abundance of new garbage deposits, damage to newly-seeded ditches along the rebuilt section of the Lower Lake Road,  a pickup driven in the Des Lacs Lake by Dike 7, and a fresh crop of vehicle ruts in the lawn near the headquarters building, left during the night of May 5th as a truck spun circles in the saturated grass and soil.

The most destructive incident occurred at some point during the week of April 29th and May 3rd, when an unknown person or persons repeatedly drove a four-wheeler across two of the hillsides along the Boat Dock Road north of Kenmare that slumped during the heavy spring run-off and rainfall in 2011.

With the railroad line shut down at times and the popular Boat Dock Road closed for the season, Canadian-Pacific Railway, Harris Construction and Des Lacs NWR staff worked from the end of May through September to restore the site. “We had to stabilize the track and hillsides,” said Des Lacs NWR manager Chad Zorn. “Then it was seeded last fall. The grass was just beginning to grow this spring.”

As a result of the ATV ruts, the soil restoration and seeding aspects of the project will have to be redone. “We estimate someone made eight or 10 trips up and down the hills and blew all the grass seed off,” Zorn said. “It’s ruined those spots and caused thousands of dollars in damage.”

ATVs prohibited on
Des Lacs refuge
Zorn reminded both local residents and out-of-town visitors that any sort of off-road vehicle use on the refuge is not allowed. “Whether you call it an ATV or UTV or whatever, even if it’s licensed and insured for use on public roads, by our rules and regulations ATVs are prohibited, period,” he said.

Refuge personnel are coordinating efforts with the Kenmare Police Department to reduce problems with unlawful ATV use. “The police department is also having issues with people riding four-wheelers in town,” said Zorn. “Our concern is the influx of new people from states that allow use of ATVs on public lands, so we’re working with the police department to educate the public.”

Citations and fines may be part of that education. As a law enforcement officer, Zorn prefers to resolve problems with discussions and changed behavior, but he writes tickets when the occasion calls for it, as he did recently with two people riding ATVs near the Munch’s Coulee Hiking Trail.

“They were driving recklessly,” Zorn said. “They were local residents who were new to the state, and they told me they didn’t realize they were on a national wildlife refuge.”

Given the refuge signs posted in the area, Zorn chose to ticket the two riders. “Violators will be issued citations, and they will be responsible for the damages they’ve caused on the refuge,” he said.

He attributed the illegal activities on the refuge to a lack of respect as well as a lack of knowledge about the refuge’s regulations. “The number of problems we’re having with all types of vehicles has increased,” he said. “I don’t ever remember this being a problem when I was here before [as manager trainee from 2002 to 2005].”

“People need to realize that at the refuge, wildlife comes first,” said Jennifer Jewett, education and outreach coordinator based at the Des Lacs NWR. “People are welcome, but while they visit, they should be cognizant of the fact that this is home for wildlife, and that there are special regulations in place, to ensure safe and quality habitat.”

She continued, “I’m sure our human visitors wouldn’t appreciate trash and ruts in their lawns made from vehicles spinning cookies.”

Tasker’s Coulee concerns
and refuge rules
Zorn is planning to erect a temporary fence along the bottoms of the restored hillsides on the Boat Dock Road to protect those slopes, but he had a new concern about Tasker’s Coulee Observation Area, which is scheduled to open to the public later this week or early next week.

“Every year when we open, instantly we have issues with damage there,” he said, listing deep vehicle ruts in the lawn, excessive garbage, gravel blown into the picnic shelter from spinning tires, and vandalism to the shelter and bathrooms as typical problems after every weekend.

He continued, “We can’t keep showing up to work on Monday morning and finding out we have thousands of dollars in damage down there. People want to be able to take their families to Tasker’s Coulee and enjoy the afternoon, not deal with all those other problems.”

Although the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge is administered as public land by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, public use of the refuge differs from lands managed by other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service or BLM.

Visitors are reminded that refuge hours are from 5 am to 10 pm daily, including public use areas such as Tasker’s Coulee. The headquarters office and visitors center open between 8 am and 4:30 pm Monday through Friday, year-round except on federal holidays.

Access to refuge information and a restroom is available inside the headquarters entrance anytime day or night.

Fires on the refuge are allowed in fire pits available at Tasker’s Coulee and the Boat Dock area, along with picnic tables.

Refuge guests are asked to pack out their own trash when they leave.

Vehicle use on the Des Lacs NWR is limited for most of the year to the auto tour route, which includes the Lower Lake Road south of Kenmare and the Boat Dock Road north of town.

The Canada Goose Trail is open to vehicle traffic for a specified period each fall, and other refuge roads can be accessed by drivers during posted hunting seasons in order to retrieve game carcasses. Information about those road openings is made available at the time the roads are open.

Public help is welcome
Zorn realizes he cannot be everywhere on the refuge when vandalism or other illegal activity is occurring, so he requested the community’s assistance.

“If anyone knows of people who are using the refuge as a personal playground or causing problems, please give me a call,” he said. “I don’t need to write another ticket in my life. I just want this to stop.”

Any information provided by members of the public can be helpful, said Zorn, including makes, models and license plate numbers of vehicles or ATVs engaged in illegal activities on the refuge.

“Get the description as best you can of the vehicle and the driver,” he added. “Don’t approach them, and don’t get yourself into trouble, but sometimes a license plate and description is all it takes. If you can get that information to me, that’s all I need.”

He referred to the long relationship between the Des Lacs NWR and Kenmare residents. “This is the public’s refuge,” he said. “Take pride in it and help protect it.”

Persons with further questions about refuge hours or regulations for use are welcome to contact Jewett at 701-385-4046 ext 221 Monday through Friday between 8 am and 4:30 pm, or leave a message at that extension.

Anyone who has more information related to damages or vandalism occurring at the Des Lacs NWR can contact Zorn at 701-385-4046 ext 225 during office hours, or leave a message.