CHURCHS FERRY - Like many other unfortunate locations in the region, Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge has undergone significant changes due to rising water. Once a valued wetland surrounded by prairie managed primarily for nesting waterfowl, Lake Alice NWR has been transformed into a vast lake that continues to challenge all known boundaries.
Lake Alice NWR is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Devils Lake Wetland Management District Complex. It covers 12,096 acres. Many of the acres used to be valued nesting habitat for mallards, gadwall and teal that would bring off their young and raise them in the shallow wetlands of Lake Alice. It was a near-perfect duck factory.
"Most of it is water now," said Mark Fisher, Lake Alice NWR biologist. "Since 2002, I've watched the refuge get completely swamped. At one time we had about 2,500 acres of nesting habitat. I can tell you that only about 400 acres remains. We've lost most of our upland nesting component at Lake Alice."
Flooding has led to significant changes at Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge. Gulls moved in as water began to cover this abandoned public parking area.
The story is similar to those being experienced by countless other people in the Devils Lake region. Farm fields, roads, homes, buildings and bridges have all given way to historically high water.
Lake Alice NWR was formerly isolated from other nearby bodies of water as it fulfilled its role as a sanctuary for local and migrating waterfowl and a wide variety of shorebirds. However, as the water in the region began to rise it was evident that Lake Alice would no longer remain a well-defined body of water. Change was inevitable.
The rising water of Lake Alice and Lake Irvin, immediately west of Lake Alice, several years ago joined to form one large body of water. To the east of Lake Alice is Mike's Lake, Chain Lake and Dry Lake. The water has risen so much that all three have become joined to Lake Alice and Lake Irvin. The entire chain is connected to Devils Lake's Six Mile Bay to the southeast and to Devils Lake's Pelican Bay to the southwest.
Five draft Environmental Assessment alternatives for Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge:
1)Alternative A: No Action - No fishing permitted on LANWR.
2)Alternative B: Restrict fishing to ice fishing and limited shore fishing.
3)Alternative C: Restrict fishing to ice fishing. (Preferred Alternative)
4)Alternative D: Unrestricted fishing open according to state regulations.
5)Alternative E: Restrict fishing to specific dates and times or specific user groups such as youth or free fishing days.
The Regional Director, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lakewood, Colo., is the deciding official responsible for determining the action to be taken in the proposal.
While boating and fishing is allowed on surrounding and connected lakes, neither activity is permitted on Lake Alice. Boats are not permitted to cross a buoy line that marks the refuge boundary during the open water season. Ice fishermen rely on Global Positioning Systems to avoid fishing on refuge water in the winter. Those wishing to drive on the ice from Lake Irvine to lakes east of Lake Alice are forced to detour far to the south to avoid crossing the refuge boundary.
The Lake Region Anglers, the most prominent fishing organization in the Devils Lake area, has been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to invoke changes that recognize a changing environment. The Lake Region Anglers want the FWS to do away with restrictions against ice fishing on Lake Alice.
"I've been working on that for about three years," said Bob Gibson, Lake Region Anglers. "Nothing when you work with the government comes easy. One of the reasons we are doing this is that all of the other refuges have something open to fishing in North Dakota. It's the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and fishing is part of their business."
Requests to allow ice fishing by Gibson and other interested anglers have received positive response from the Devils Lake Wetland Management District. Matt Sprenger, project leader, has acknowledged that changes in Lake Alice may indeed mean it is time for some operational policy changes as well.
"I think it's a real good opportunity. We've got changing water conditions here the past 20 years," said Sprenger. "Because of that, we have a self-sustaining fishery. Ice fishing will result in minimal conflicts with our mission of protecting migratory birds and waterfowl."
"The depth of Lake Alice used to be between a foot and maybe 4 or 5 feet. Now we're talking 20 to 25 feet in the deepest locations. It's big water," said Fisher.
In response to requests to open Lake Alice to ice fishing, refuge staff completed the necessary studies as required by the USFWS. Copies of the studies can be found on the Lake Alice NWR website. A public comment period on the proposed Lake Alice NWR fishing plan closes Dec. 20.
"We'd like people to comment," said Lynn Schlueter, a member of the Lake Region Anglers. "It is a fair chunk of water that the public can get on, that's what it amounts to. It is a good approach to allow utilization in wintertime. It won't change anything that is (happening) on the refuge."
"Ice fishing would have limited effect on wildlife," agreed Fisher. "We really think the time is right for ice fishing. A lot of folks have asked us about it. I need to point out that the proposal will probably not be finalized until the winter of 2014-15. We'll probably receive a final ruling sometime late next summer."
Five alternatives are included in the proposal that will eventually land of the desk of the USFWS Regional Director in Lakewood, Colo. Ice fishing only is listed as the preferred alternative. Another of the alternatives proposes ice fishing and limited shore fishing.
"We have no intent to have boats and such. That would derail the plan," said Fisher.
Gibson called the possibility of opening Lake Alice to ice fishing "an all-around great thing." Fishing has been very good for several years throughout the Devils Lake basin and Lake Alice should be no exception, even through the ice.
"The number of northern pike on Lake Irvin has been just incredible," said Gibson. "All these lakes are connected. They are all Devils Lake fish. They migrate back and forth. Hopefully we can get Lake Alice open for ice fishing and people will respect it and keep it clean."
Randy Hiltner is the North Dakota Game and Fish Department northeast district fisheries supervisor stationed at Devils Lake. He has several years of data from test netting conducted on Lake Irvin. No test netting has been done on Lake Alice.
"We have not netted within refuge boundaries, but Lake Irvine is contiguous with Lake Alice," said Hiltner. "We've had a fishery up there for a long time. There's lots of northern pike and walleye up there. We didn't net very many perch, probably the result of having a lot of predators in there."
Fish are known to move extensively throughout the Devils Lake system. Natural reproduction has been boosted greatly by rising water. Stocking fish in either Lake Irvine or Lake Alice, which is now a single body of water, hasn't been necessary.
"I presume that wouldn't really change if ice fishing becomes a reality," said Hiltner. "We've had such good natural reproduction in that area."
If the proposal is successful and Lake Alice is opened to ice fishing, there would be some conditions imposed. An example is that the USFWS would not maintain roadways to or on the ice, a policy that is common elsewhere. Proposed fishing hours would be 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Permanent fish houses would not be allowed, only portable fish houses that would have to be removed daily.
There are no boat ramps on Lake Alice that could potentially serve as access points for ice fishermen. However, it is expected that ice fishermen will likely utilize several flooded roadways to gain access. Fishing guides wishing to ice fish Lake Alice would be required to purchase a special use permit. Fisher encourages people to make their comments known prior to Dec. 20.
"We've been mailing out info to folks," said Fisher. "If they call our office for information, we can mail them a hard copy of the package."
The Devils Lake Wetland Management District can be reached at 662-8611. Written comments will be accepted by mail or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.