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Umatilla Depot Land as Wildlife Refuge

Federal agents look forward to managing Umatilla Depot land as wildlife refuge Fish and Wildlife may take charge of 5,600 acres with LRA support


East Oregonian

Release Date: July 29, 2010


HERMISTON, OREGON -- If the U.S. Army agrees, more than 5,600 acres of the Umatilla Chemical Depot could be turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior said.


Larry Klimek, deputy project leader for the Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge Complex, has been working on the transition since he moved from the Midwest last September. The federal agency proposes to manage the depot's shrub-steppe and grassland habitats as a unit of the national wildlife refuge system.


Today the depot's Local Reuse Authority met in Boardman to finalize the depot reuse plan it intends to submit next week to the Army. Through the LRA, the USFWS is asking for a public benefit conveyance of 5,613 acres.


Klimek said the depot property would be added to the complex his agency manages. It includes eight wildlife refuges and the Hanford Reach National Monument, totaling 248,386 acres. The addition of the depot rangeland would boost the agency's responsibility in the area to nearly 254,000 acres. The refuges range from north of Othello, Wash., to McKay Creek, south of Pendleton and west to Conboy Lake in the evening shadow of Mount Adams in Washington state.


The agency also manages refuges at Cold Springs Reservoir, east of Hermiston, and the Umatilla refuges along both sides of the Columbia River between Umatilla and Threemile Canyon.


"All but Conboy Lake are in the Columbia River Plateau," Klimek said, "historically dominated by shrub-steppe habitat."


Shrub-steppe lands are a semi-arid, treeless region, sometimes a harsh environment, with an annual rainfall of 6-8 inches and temperatures varying from 105 degrees Fahrenheit in summer to 5 degrees below zero in winter.


"The dominant vegetation is typically made up of various sage shrubs, such as tall sagebrush, antelope bitterbrush and rabbit brush," Klimek said. "Grasses important to shrub-steppe include bluebunch wheatgrass, Idaho fescue, and Sandberg's bluegrass."


The depot property has remained largely protected because of the Army's oversight for the past 70 years.


"A diverse mixture of wildlife has developed within shrub-steppe habitats, where they can take advantage of the plentiful sunlight, and relative abundance of living space," he said. "Two of the dominant bird species include burrowing owls and long-billed curlews."


"The current breeding population of owls on the Umatilla Chemical Depot... is a local, regional and nationally significant population and may be the largest in the state," he said.


Klimek said the owls and curlews in particular attracted agency officials to the depot. As a result, they worked closely with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation on the process to acquire the land.


Although the USFWS hasn't done any budgeting for managing the depot land, Klimek said the property probably would be assigned to Jack Beaujon, the new assistant manager of the nearby Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge.


Immediate action after the transfer of ownership would include posting the property and continuing the wildlife studies.


"We would look at opportunities for public use once all the lands are taken over and there are no security issues," Klimek said.


Some of those opportunities might include wildlife observation and volunteering to help with some of the studies.


But all that has to wait until the USFWS has control of the property, and that could take some time. Klimek said he has no idea when the actual transfer might take place.


"It's going to depend on how long the process takes," he said.


Media Contact -- Dean Brickey, East Oregonian