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Management plan for lake islands seeks to balance recreation and conservation

by TAYLOR INMAN
Daily Inter Lake | January 16, 2022 12:00 AM

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks unveiled their new management plan for the islands in Flathead Lake this week. Region 1 Information and Education Program Manager Dillon Tabish said FWP is hoping the plan strikes a balance between responsible recreation and conservation as the islands become more heavily visited than ever before.

Tabish said Bird, Cedar, Douglas and Goose islands are managed as a Wildlife Habitat Protection Areas. This is with the exception of Wild Horse Island, which is managed as a state park. The islands are the home and nesting grounds for many different species of waterfowl that live on Flathead Lake.

Tabish said FWP convened a citizen committee in 2009 to complete a review of how the islands were managed and what ways they could be improved. Their findings were not put to action until recently, when the plan was proposed for public comment last fall. The use of public lands has increased in almost every measure since then, and even though FWP does not officially track visitation on the islands, they believe the visitation has doubled over the past decade. In 2009, estimated visitation to the state park units on Flathead Lake, including Wild Horse Island, was 233,224 visits. Since then, estimated annual visitation to Flathead Lake State Park has more than doubled -- the estimated visitation in 2020 was over 470,000 visits. This increased visitation means bigger impacts on the environment of these islands.

“Over the years we’ve had issues with garbage on the island, human waste, unattended campfires, or campfires that don’t get properly extinguished— that culminated with the wildfire on Bird Island in 2020. We couldn’t definitively find the cause of that fire but we have documented and cleaned-up numerous fire rings and fires over the years on these islands,” Tabish said.

Human waste has also proved to be a challenge on the islands that have no vault toilets and rely on people packing out their waste. FWP said vandalism on some islands have been a big issue as well, particularly at the Cedar Island homestead site.

Tabish said these issues pushed FWP to look into ways to better manage these islands and officially start the process of implementing new recreation guidelines. The plan was drawn up from information collected by the citizen committee in 2009 and proposed for public comment last October. Tabish said the responses from the community showed that people recognize these islands as an important habitat for wildlife and don’t want to see them run down by irresponsible recreation.

“The main theme that came out of the comments is that people are very passionate about these islands. They really value them, which is great, we value them as well, and that’s why we’re trying to come up with the best plan possible that balances their conservation value but also leaves some opportunities for the public to enjoy and use these islands. So, that was the task ahead of us and the public comments fully showed us that people love these islands, so how we manage them is important,” Tabish said.

Based on review of public comments and best management practices, the state recommended Alternative B for its management plan. Under the plan, camping will no longer be permitted on Douglas and Goose islands, which are very small in size. Camping is still allowed on a first-come, first-serve basis for designated campsites on Bird and Cedar islands. Bird island will have three campsites, with six on Cedar. Campsites will be restricted to four people per site, and visits will be limited to three overnights within a two-week period. These campsites will be in traditional use areas to limit proliferation of additional sites and overall impacts to the island's wildlife habitat.

“Cedar and Bird islands were the only islands large enough that we felt comfortable allowing camping on there, and that’s following the recommendations in our Wildlife Management Area Public Use Rules, which sort of identify guidelines for what is the best way to allow recreation on islands,” Tabish said. “We could also have camping on Goose, but we are proposing to not because we don’t want those impacts on nesting bird habitats.”

This is also why all recreational use will be prohibited during the waterfowl nesting season on Bird, Douglas and Goose islands between March 1 and July 15. Tabish said these islands see mostly migratory waterfowl like goose and ducks, being too small to sustain populations of other wildlife in most cases.

In addition to these changes, no campfires will be allowed on Bird and Cedar islands, but gas or propane fueled camp stoves will be permitted in accordance with prevailing fire restrictions. There will also be no campfires or camp stoves allowed on Douglas and Goose islands. In an attempt to curb human waste, composting toilets will be installed on both Bird and Cedar islands. A minimal trail system will connect campsites and the composting toilet on Cedar Island. The Parks and Outdoor Recreation Division will maintain the toilets and campsites. Campsites that are not connected by trail to the toilets will require packing out all waste, including human feces. Signs and informational kiosks will also be installed on all four islands to inform people of the islands' history, management goals, seasonal closures and public use regulations.

“Some people think we are throwing these islands wide open to use, but they’ve been like that, so before people could camp up there and there were no real sideboards, so in that way this plan will reel some of that in and create some clear boundaries for what folks can and cannot do on these islands, and so we’re hoping that’s where we’re going to achieve the balance of public recreational use and habitat conservation,” Tabish said.

To see the proposal and other related documents, including public comments and the full guidelines, visit https://fwp.mt.gov/news/public-notices and click on the Flathead Lake Islands Recreation Management Proposal.