Kootenai National Refuge
One of the nation’s smallest refuges and the only refuge in Idaho’s northern territory is Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge. Its solo effort in the panhandle, near the Canadian border, is a remarkable retreat in the heavy woodlands. On misty mornings moose drink from the ponds and pelicans cruise through the cool channels. “I think what really sets us apart from all the other national wildlife refuges in Idaho is the others are all located in Southern Idaho,” says Diana Ellis, Kootenai refuge manager. “It's just the rivers and the streams that we have here. It's wetter habitat. We have a lot more wetlands up here.”
Just a few decades ago, that wasn’t the case. Farmers drained the land for agricultural use. Now, using pumps and ditches, refuge managers try to mimic nature by manipulating water levels. Some parts of the refuge are flooded. Others are left open for farmland, but for birds rather than humans. “The majority of our crops are winter wheat, spring barley and about 20 percent millet which does real well in the wetter soils,” says Jim Tucker, refuge farmer. “Everything that we raise is left standing. Nothing is done to it and it is left for the birds to come and forage on.”
The result now flies in every direction on the wings of hundreds of birds in several varieties. “It's beautiful. It reminds me of what this whole river valley used to look like,” says Jan Rose, Youth Conservation Corps crew leader. “I try to imagine when the skies were blackened with thousands of waterfowl. I've had glimpses of that doing Christmas bird counts. One Christmas bird count we counted 10,000 mallards in about a two-hour period of time. It blew my mind. And I thought, wow, that must have been what it was like here."