Hamden to lose staff in budget cuts
The budget ax is falling on Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge, and birds and their human friends will be the biggest losers.
Hamden Slough, a long, narrow 3,400-acre strip of land located north of Audubon and stretching up a few miles west of Callaway, will lose its small staff Feb. 20 to a national belt-tightening effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Refuge Manager Mike Murphy and assistant Mary Hendrickson will be absorbed into the Detroit Lakes Wetlands Management District Office on Tower Road. Murphy said he doesn't know if he'll still be involved in managing Hamden or not.
Part-time tractor operator Bob Scherzer, 66, will retire rather than relocate.
The refuge will remain open to the public and will be managed from the Detroit Lakes office about 7 miles away, but the number of visitors is expected to drop -- perhaps from its current 6,000 per year to about 3,000, Murphy predicted.
Since the refuge was approved by Congress in 1989, its "stubble fields and deep ditches" have been turned into bird habitat with 26 acres of native grass and wildflowers that shelter 13 rare bird species, including the marbled godwit and Henslow's sparrow, Murphy said.
The species aren't considered endangered, but they are listed by state and federal authorities as "species of special concern," and all nest in or near the native wildflower areas that Hamden staff created over the years.
"When we're aware they're nesting in an area, we specifically manage that area for that nest," Murphy said.
Most refuges don't plant wildflower seeds, but Murphy's decision to do so has been a boon for birds. The flowers attract insects in the spring and their seeds provide the first winter fat for birds in the fall, he said.
The refuge's seeding of 26 upland acres with wildflowers near the Hesby Memorial, is the largest tract in the Department of Interior, Murphy said. More recently, the staff has worked to improve shorebird nesting sites and serve as an educational model for land and water stewardship.
Wetland and upland restoration efforts at Hamden Slough now provide resting, nesting and feeding habitat for over 220 species of waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors and other migratory birds.
In 2004, the refuge was designated as an "Important Bird Area" by the Audubon Society of Minnesota -- one of only eight sites chosen in the state.
"It was an honor to be selected along with Hawk Ridge in Duluth and Itasca State Park," Murphy said.
Hamden is considered a regional "hot spot" by bird watching enthusiasts across the country. It has been a popular field trip destination at the annual Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds for the past 10 years.
In the spring visitors have been invited to view the mating dance of the resident Greater Prairie Chickens on the "booming grounds" in Hamden Lake. A viewing blind is provided for visitors.
"The staff at Hamden Slough is so helpful to birders to the area," Willma Hanson of the Lakes Area Birding Club said in a news release, "I always knew I could count on them to direct me to the best birding spots on the refuge.
"And thanks to their work in creating a wonderful habitat, we now see a variety of birds that we didn't have before. It's a great loss to the birding community not to have staff at the refuge."
Hamden Slough was born of a 50-year effort to protect and restore the area, which has always been popular with birds.
Depression-era stories tell of hungry kids throwing up sticks on foggy days and knocking waterfowl out of the sky for dinner, Murphy said.
Contributions from the Safari Club International, the Isaac Walton League, Ducks Unlimited and others helped with purchasing the lands for Hamden, which has a goal of nearly doubling in size to about 6,000 acres of restored prairie wetlands.
When the refuge was established in 1989, it was managed out of the Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District office. The two offices were later separated under former Detroit Lakes director Rolland Siegfried, Murphy said.
The staff relocation is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Midwest Region plan to reduce staffing at the region's national wildlife refuges by 71 positions, approximately 20 percent of its workforce over the next three years.
Staff from Hamden Slough NWR are being reassigned to fill critical vacancies at the Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District that would otherwise not be filled due to current budgets, Murphy said.
The Detroit Lakes WMD manages over 46,000 acres of Waterfowl Production Areas and 13,000 acres of conservation easement in Becker, Clay, Norman, Mahnomen, and Polk Counties.
Even with this realignment of staff, the Wetland District Office will still have several vacant positions. That will reduce some of the intensive management activities on Hamden Slough, and will also hurt management of the Waterfowl Production Areas.
Detroit Lakes Wetland Management District Supervisor Scott Kahan, who will now supervise both Detroit Lakes WMD and Hamden Slough NWR, says he and all staff are committed to focusing on priorities, and doing the best they can with the resources they have.
"All staff members, both those at Hamden and at the Detroit Lakes office have a passion for what they do, and with less staff to manage all these refuge system lands it will make the situation tough," he said in a news release.
"We have been doing more with less for several years, but we are getting to the point where we'll need to do less with less. This will be hard to do, as we are all very committed to the wildlife resources and the public that we serve."
Not only will the remaining staff have to actively manage Hamden Slough, it will have to contend with several positions going unfilled at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge and at the Detroit Lakes WMD office. The end result will be less biological monitoring, less habitat restoration such as native grass seeding, less invasive weed control and less maintenance of public facilities.
There will be fewer wildlife surveys, fewer habitat restoration projects and fewer education and outreach programs.
It will become more difficult to work cooperatively with local volunteers on conservation projects because of the lack of staff to build relationships and coordinate efforts.
The upshot, says Kahan, is that the three offices will work to manage refuge system lands efficiently, and "are striving to provide quality service during these difficult times."
But over the next three years, the local managers say it will become more difficult to reach their conservation mission and goals because of the staff cutbacks.