Unfortunately, current practices would indicate that this is an appropriate name change for the (former?) Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. For the past three years each of its marsh pools have been sequentially groomed to promote a plant-based ecosystem to encourage the waterfowl population — ducks, geese, and swans, but primarily ducks. This strategy, however, has decimated the fish habitat upon which water waders depend; these include such well-known species as herons (green, black-crowned, and great blues) and egrets. It has forced these and other resident wildlife, including osprey, eagles, and kingfishers, to seek new sources of food elsewhere. The Wildlife Drive attracts a large number of visitors each year, but at the time of this writing (May 24, 2021) it features only long stretches of mud flats littered with the odoriferous bodies of decomposing fish.
Andrea van Beusichem, Visitor Services Manager at MNWR, explained the pool drainage policy to readers of the Friends of Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge Facebook page. Even though she believes that “[b]iological diversity leads to a healthy ecosystem” she admits that the drainage has a single and restrictive purpose. “[It exposes the marsh bed] to the warmth needed for plant growth.” Rather than express concern for the heartless elimination of the fish habitat, Ms. van Beusichem evidently believes that the carnage affects only carp, an unwanted and invasive species. “[T]he dead carp are being eaten by migratory birds. . .their carcasses are consumed by bald eagles. Carcasses will also by eaten by turkey vulture[s], another migratory bird.” However, direct observation reveals that this is not the case. The extensive mud flats that comprise what was once the main pool are littered with dead fish and other water-dwellers. Even though many photos are posted on Joseph Karpinski’s Facebook site, Birds of Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, only two show eagles pecking at dead carp, and there was a single, recently posted 30-second video (now removed) of two turkey vultures circling in the thermals arising over the mud flats. No significant numbers of vultures or eagles are evident, either in photos or upon observation (at least by this writer), and the carcasses remain largely untouched. No other photos or videos show any other predators feasting upon the dead carp. But there are several photos of great blue herons and egrets ignoring the carrion surrounding them while searching in vain for live food.
Yet Ms. van Beusichem continues to dismiss the fish kill and its consequences. The carp are not subjects of mass slaughter; instead, they are being “managed” by the drainage policies. Such policies, she states, are necessary to “rejuvenate the marshes” to “allow new plant growth.” And therein lies the problem. By focusing on a plant-only ecosystem, the fish-eaters lose their food supply. Carp aren’t the only fish that die when the marshes are “rejuvenated.” ALL the fish die, as do frogs and other water-dwellers, depriving the waders and hunters of their food source. True, some will find new fishing grounds, but others will starve to death.
My question is, why the focus on a plant-based ecosystem to the detriment of a formerly coexistent fish habitat?
There are two reasons why this question remains unanswered. The first (and most obvious) is that Ms. van Beusichem can’t provide an answer. According to her Facebook page, she has no training in biology, ecosystems, or marsh management, even though “anything that has to do with the public at the Refuge, I deal with.” She is a spokesperson and nothing more. What she says is for public relations purposes only.
The other, less obvious reason is that she won’t provide an answer, probably because there is a contributing MNWR partner with an intense interest in maintaining the Refuge as a duck-only environment. This partner, Ducks Unlimited, is self-described as “the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving North America’s continually disappearing waterfowl habitats.” Their interest and focus are clearly on ducks — not herons, not eagles, and certainly not any other fish-eating species. They are interested only in ducks and duck habitats. Period.
Ducks Unlimited has provided both labor and financing to the Montezuma Wetlands Complex, which includes, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, the approximately 10,000 acres comprising The Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge as well as its Visitor Center. So, while draining the pools at MNWR may disappoint its visitors by polluting Wildlife Drive with noxious odors and offering unlimited views of mud, it is certain to delight the members of Ducks Unlimited, who anticipate lush duck-attracting vegetation come fall. I have no doubt that these policies, which foster a duck-only habitat, will also foster a long-lasting partnership between Ducks Unlimited and MNWR.
This issue is further complicated by the fact that the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge allows onsite duck hunting. Hunting as a “recreation” — at a refuge? which is supposed to be a safe place for wildlife? While this practice may be a holdover from a 1930s philosophy, it is important to note that it isn’t 1930 any longer. Today, in 2021, the US Department of the Interior defines the term “national wildlife refuge” without even mentioning hunting — and for good reason:
A national wildlife refuge is a designation for certain protected areas that are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These public lands and waters are set aside to conserve America’s wild animals and plants. On top of that, they provide enjoyment and beauty, and they demonstrate shared American values that support protecting and respecting living things.
National refuges, according to this definition (https://www.doi.gov/blog/celebrating-national-wildlife-refuges), were established to protect and conserve wildlife, a fact that seems to be lost upon MNWR officials and Ducks Unlimited. In any event, “protecting and respecting living things” notwithstanding, Field and Stream ( https://www.fieldandstream.com/breaking-ice-mallards-on-montezuma-national-wildlife-refuge/), explains the policy that Ms. van Beusichem fails to address:
This patchwork of 10,000 federal acres is the first U.S. layover for more than 1 million Atlantic Flyway waterfowl on their fall migration south. Open to duck hunters every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday during the season, Montezuma requires a reservation, made three days prior to your hunt day.
The dictionary definition of “conserve” is “to protect. . .to keep in a safe and sound state,” and Ducks Unlimited claims to be an organization of “conservationists.” However, they boast that “the majority of its members are hunters,” and they defend duck hunting, which they prefer to call “harvesting,” in unequivocal terms:
Wildlife management, hunting, and habitat conservation in North America are interdependent, and Ducks Unlimited, Inc. strongly supports hunting. The financial contributions of hunters and recreational shooters, through mechanisms such as their hunting licenses and excise taxes on sporting arms and ammunition, provide the foundation for conservation funding. . .
I’m not sure how I feel about hunting. Certainly in times of natural overabundance, a quick death due to a shot in the head is better than a slow, agonizing death due to hunger or disease. However, I am very sure how I feel about hunting when innocent wildlife, including ducks, are lured to a safe-haven refuge, only to be considered “fair game” to hunters who 1) consider it a “recreation” to shoot them and 2) pay inter alia licensing fees for the privilege. This is hardly “fair game.” It is patently unfair, mercenary, and rather disgusting.
Ms. van Beusichem, though, on behalf of MNWR, remains silent on this issue.
Instead, she continues to insist that elimination of the fish habitat in favor of providing acres of duck food promotes “biological diversity.” And, of course, she’s already told us that “[b]iological diversity leads to a healthy ecosystem.” It is my opinion that anyone who believes there is “diversity” in a duck-only habitat certainly doesn’t know the meaning of the word. And if we are to believe her when she assures us that swarms of turkey vultures and eagles will clear up the dead fish component of this “healthy ecosystem,” then we must disbelieve our own eyes. And noses. (And what about the absent herons and egrets?)
In fairness, she does offer us an apology of sorts:
We have to make choices. Based on mandates and missions, those choices use the best science available to create, enhance, protect, and monitor habitat for federally threatened and endangered species (none currently exist on the refuge), migratory fish (none currently exist on the refuge), and migratory birds (about 300 species exist on the refuge).”
An apology, that is, only until you realize that she just about quotes the BASI mandate of the Migratory Bird Act, which was designed to protect wildlife, not to endorse practices that drive them away through habitat elimination.
But I digress.
So, not only are we asked to disbelieve our eyes, we are to be comforted by the fact that the Refuge uses “the best science available” — not to protect endangered species (none currently exist on the refuge) but instead to create a twice-yearly landing zone for migrating ducks, which are then targeted and killed by any duck hunter with enough money to pay the requisite licensing (and other?) fees and enough smarts to make an advance reservation.
It always makes me sigh when the destruction caused by human interference is defended by claims of “best science available” and “best interests” of the wildlife. It also makes me furious when marsh managers overuse standard maintenance practices such as ditching and drainage so that the emergent marsh environment they claim to protect remains predominantly in the vegetative stage — with only brief periods that allow the fish to return before repeating the cycle once more. In fact, Michigan State University, which studies the state’s Natural Features Inventory, warns against a too-frequent drainage cycle because it “allow[s] shrubs and trees to establish and eventually replace emergent marshes” — which appears to be occurring right now at the Knox-Marcellus marsh, in spite of — but more likely because of — the joint efforts of the Montezuma Complex and Ducks Unlimited.
Furthermore, the University studies point out that “[e]mergent marshes flood seasonally, especially in the spring.” Such flooding, they state, provides “. . .spawning grounds for fish.” Instead of mimicking the natural cycle of springtime flooding, which would encourage a coexistent fish-based ecosystem, the MNWR managers choose instead to do the exact opposite by draining the main pool down to mud flats, thus preventing the fish from spawning and eventually killing them, which in turn displaces the wildlife dependent upon them for sustenance. Here in the northeast droughts are most likely to occur in the early summer, and waiting until then to replicate the natural cycle of drought would make more sense, but it would not allow enough time for sufficient vegetative growth and its subsequent flooding to accommodate the fall duck migration.
Is the Flyway limited to ducks? It will be if MNWR and Ducks Unlimited have their way. As I write this, the fish-eating portion of the claimed 300 species of migratory birds are fleeing the Refuge, a recognized Flyway pit stop, because their habitat has been eliminated in favor of ducks.
Maybe they should just rename the refuge, “Montezuma National WATERFOWL Refuge, because that is what it is.
An update, May 27: The controversy is over, at least on Joseph Karpinski’s Facebook page, Birds of Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. He has quelled any further discussion by removing anyone who does not subscribe to the drainage policies (me) espoused by Ms. van Beusichem along with another poster (Alyssa Johnson) who perhaps too vehemently defended Ms. van Beusichem and her public relations statements. These actions were duly acknowledged by Ms. van Beusichem, who thanked Mr. Karpinski “for allowing me to explain refuge management to you all”.
Well, at least the smell is gone.
The mud flats now (mid-to-late June) sport a thick covering of grassy vegetation, thanks to the fertilizer provided by mounds of dead fish, and re-flooding the main pool will likely begin in late August, thus producing the desired duck-only environment just in time for their fall migration to the south.
However, facts remain facts. This process does not promote the biodiversity Ms. van Beusichem claims and instead eliminates it by eliminating the food sources upon which fish-eaters depend. The large water kill it created was not limited to carp and was cruel and tortuous to all fish as well as the other water-resident species. It unnecessarily forces much of the (formerly) resident wildlife away from the refuge. And for what purpose? — other than sponsoring seasonal kills every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
It’s not just ducks. Geese, including snow geese, as well as land animals (turkey, deer, rabbit, and squirrel) are all considered huntable game at the Refuge. Does the Refuge make money on the kills it allows on its property? Are hunters charged a fee for their permits — beyond, of course, the mandatory yearly purchase of the duck stamp? Does MNWR charge a fee-per-pound for every dead animal?
The Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge is free to pursue this agenda, despite the damage it causes. There is nothing I (or anyone else) can do except speak for the wildlife that cannot speak for themselves.