GREAT FALLS (AP) — A proposed management plan for the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Montana has drawn more than 25,000 comments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says.
Bill Berg, deputy project leader for the 1.1 million acre refuge, said the comments range from designating the entire refuge as wilderness to removing the land from refuge status.
"Our public is broader now than it was 20 years ago," Berg told the Great Falls Tribune.
The Wilderness Society wants more of the refuge designated as wilderness, while the Missouri River Conservation Districts Council wants less.
There are 155,000 acres of proposed wilderness in 15 separate areas in the refuge. The preferred alternative in the plan has six proposed wilderness units that would be expanded to 18,559 acres.
But that alternative includes eliminating 26,744 acres elsewhere from wilderness consideration, resulting in a net reduction in proposed wilderness.
The Wilderness Society opposes that alternative and backs one that would add 25,000 acres as proposed wilderness.
"Prairie wilderness is very unique," said John Todd, the Wilderness Society's Northern Prairie Campaign coordinator, noting that 1 percent of the nation's native grassland is protected as wilderness.
But the Missouri River Conservation Districts Council, made up of 15 conservation districts in 14 counties along the Missouri River, doesn't want to expand wilderness boundaries.
"The restrictions could create an additional burden on grazing practices, so additional wilderness would be a concern," said Laurie Riley, coordinator of the group.
Berg said off-road travel and development on lands adjacent to the refuge in some areas caused the service to propose removing those from wilderness consideration.
"Our feeling was these characteristics, even though they were there initially, they are not there to the extent they were then," Berg said.
He said that in areas were proposed wilderness would be added, the Wildlife Service has bought private holdings over the last quarter century to make those areas more suitable for wilderness designation.
Congress would have to approve the designating of any areas as wilderness.
The refuge is named after Western painter Charlie Russell. It stretches about 125 miles along the Missouri River and draws about 250,000 visitors annually.
Berg says public comments are still being reviewed, with a final decision expected by September 2012.