The Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge southeast of Colville is celebrating its 75th anniversary this summer to acquaint more people with recent visitor-friendly improvements to a niche protected mostly for wildlife.
Organized activities range from bird and butterfly walks to a bicycling event. Meanwhile, the 43,000-acre refuge already attracts a quiet, steady year-round stream of visitors who have discovered the camping, hiking, fishing, hunting and educational opportunities.
It’s one of the rare refuges that’s virtually wide open for people to explore, at least on foot.
The Little Pend Oreille (pronounced PON-dor-ay) derives its name from the stream running through it. But the refuge owes its existence to its marginal value as farmland.
“Homesteaders coming from the Great Plains fleeing the Dust Bowl found they couldn’t make a living on this land,” said Jerry Cline, refuge manager.
Settlers willingly sold land to the federal Resettlement Administration to help fund their move to somewhere else. Once the government had reacquired significant land, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1939 to preserve the area and its wetlands southeast of Colville for migratory birds and other wildlife. The refuge has expanded over the years.
Located on the west slope of the Selkirk Mountain Range, the refuge is the only mountainous, mixed-conifer forest refuge in the lower 48 states, giving refuge managers a unique mission to focus on moose, elk, deer, forest grouse – and hunting for them – as well as habitats for songbirds and waterfowl.
Biologists have documented 206 bird species throughout the year on the refuge, which ranges from 1,800 feet on the western lowlands to 5,600 feet on the eastern boundary at Olson Peak
Teachers in the area regularly use the refuge for science-related field trips. Upgrades to the auto-tour that should be completed this week boost the educational experience for everyone with 12 stops and interpretive signs.
Although the tour is accessible by vehicle, the refuge staff and volunteers encourage people to take even more time on the route on July 26. The first Blue Goose Family Bike Ride will cover the 10.5-mile auto-tour on packed, graded dirt roads followed by refreshments and bluegrass music.
Refuge wildlife biologist Mike Munts led a June 7 tour of birding hot spots and the group of 10 participants identified 82 species during the day.
In an agreement with the federal government, the Washington Game Department managed the refuge from 1965-94, with emphasis on protecting winter range for white-tailed deer and providing hunting.
Motorized travel was not strictly regulated.
Barbed-wire fences had been strung across the refuge to accommodate livestock grazing.
The U.S. Air Force Survival School ran regular operations on the refuge, as the pilots learned to live off the land and evade the enemy.
A new approach to managing the area began in 1994 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service resumed on-site management of the refuge.
Two decades later, old-time visitors might not recognize the place.
The cattle have been kicked off and 28 miles of barbed wire fence dating back as far as the homestead era have been removed.
The Survival School has been evicted and motorized travel restricted to about 60 miles of the 125 miles of roads on the refuge.
Timber is being thinned and controlled burns are set to rejuvenate vegetation and reduce fuels that could blow up destructively in a wildfire.
Even though hunting is still allowed, the refuge staff has documented more moose and elk visiting the refreshed habitat. Wild turkeys thrive despite heavy pressure during the April-May gobbler hunting season.
Fishing remains an attraction on portions of the river, as well as at Potter’s Pond and McDowell and Bayley lakes. These trout fisheries are managed by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department. Potter’s Pond is a top early-season choice for families. McDowell and Bayley have been darlings of fly fishermen for decades, although McDowell has become infested with tench and will need a rehabilitation project to restore a productive trout fishery.
Adjacent Starvation Lake is routinely one of the best trout lakes in Washington when the season opens on the last Saturday of April.
The refuge is largely wild, but improvements are obvious.
Signage is better, camping at the six established no-fee campgrounds has been upgraded with vault toilets and three hiking trails have been created.
Cline said volunteers have helped put the muscle behind many of the improvements that have made the refuge more visitor-friendly.
Volunteers logged 1,400 hours of help in 2013, Cline said. Most of the help came from Friends of the LPO Refuge and the Washington Trails Association.
The refuge has 6.5 miles of developed trail, including the 1.3-mile interpretive trail at McDowell Lake and the 4.2-mile Mill Butte Trail that starts from the refuge headquarters.
The newest trail extends a mile off the auto tour’s Rookery Road. “If you have some kids full of energy, take them off on the Big Pine Trail to a spur overlooking beaver ponds,” Cline said.
The trail system includes a total of 1 mile of paved or hard-surface wheelchair-accessible trail with segments at McDowell Marsh, refuge headquarters and Potter’s Pond fishing access.
About 125 miles of roads are managed on the refuge, with about 60 miles open to motor vehicles at least seasonally. The remaining are generally closed to public vehicles but available for hiking, hunting and other visits on foot.
Visitation numbers are hard to peg because the refuge has nine unmanned entrances, Cline said: “We report 50,000 visitors a year, but it could be more.”
The refuge has seven year-round staffers plus six seasonal staff working on fire prevention, maintenance and biology projects.
“This summer the refuge also is served by four teens in the Youth Conservation Corps program, one Student Conservation Association biotech and one intern biotech,” Cline said.
Last year, the staff, volunteer and contractors manipulated 1,000 acres of forest habitat and set controlled burns to revive habitat on 535 acres, Cline said.
The refuge also has a long-range goal to restoring riparian areas neglected during the grazing era. “The area along creeks is very important habitat for a wide range of wildlife,” he said.
But on July 26, all of the work will be shut down and the celebration will peak.
“We hope a bunch of people do the Blue Goose bike ride and then join us for anniversary cake and bluegrass music,” Cline said. “There’s a lot to celebrate here.”