SALEM, Ohio — Changes could be coming to the Erie National Wildlife Refuge in Crawford County, Pennsylvania.
The refuge, which focuses on protecting migratory birds and endangered species, is creating a Comprehensive Conservation Plan. The plan will describe a 15-year management strategy for the refuge and possibly alter some current management practices.
The refuge, which was established in 1959, has used a cooperative farming program for many years. Right now, three farmers are using about 260 acres at the 8,800-acre refuge to grow corn, oats and alfalfa.
According to Deputy Refuge Manager Patty Nagel, the farm program is being evaluated and could face elimination under the refuge’s new conservation plan.
While farming has traditionally been considered an acceptable management tool, Nagel said there could be benefits to letting the refuge revert to native vegetation.
Native plants have special nutritional values and appeal to a diversity of wildlife, especially migratory birds and endangered species.
However, farming the land has benefits, too. The farmers don’t pay to use the property, but they are responsible for its upkeep and they are required to leave 20 percent of their crop in the field to provide food for wildlife.
Gary Sliter, a volunteer at the refuge, said without the crops, there won’t be enough food to sustain the animals. And the farmers will lose out on the time and money they’ve invested in the ground.
The number of farmed acres at the refuge has decreased over the years and Sliter doesn’t like to see the cropland disappearing.
“I strongly believe that we need to get this farming program back up to par, where it used to be,” he said.
Nagel said refuge staff members are aware of the impact this decision will have on the refuge and surrounding community. But the priority must be to do what is best for the wildlife.
The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 charged refuges around the country with restoring wildlife habitats to historical conditions, the conditions that were present before the U.S. was colonized.
However, Erie’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan can include management programs like farming as long as refuge staff can justify that it helps them work toward the refuge’s mission.
The goal of the plan will be to conserve wildlife and provide recreation opportunities.
Public comments on the Comprehensive Conservation Plan will be accepted until April 30. The final decision will be made by the refuge’s regional director in Hadley, Mass.
Nagel said the goal is to have a plan in place in two years.