New plans for Harbor Island National Wildlife Refuge

By Howard Meyerson

DeTour, MI – Boaters, paddlers, hikers and wildlife enthusiasts may find Harbor Island National Wildlife Refuge more inviting in future years. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staffers are finalizing the conservation plan for the 695 acre island in northern Lake Huron. The plan will guide its management over the next 15 years.

“We want to increase accessibility, but also manage it so there is no habitat damage,” said Mark Vaniman, the Harbor Island refuge manager based at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge.  “I want it first to be a wildlife refuge that benefits wildlife and plant species.”

Harbor Island is located one mile north of Drummond Island. It has long been a boating destination and an increasing number of kayakers have visited in recent years. The island’s deep bay offers shelter from elements as well as providing a good anchorage.  Visitors who come by boat often walk its undeveloped shoreline.

The island refuge was purchased from The Nature Conservancy in 1983. It is home for whitetail deer, red fox, ruffed grouse, snowshoe hares, bald eagles and a variety of songbirds.  Hunting is permitted, but camping is not.

It is one of several federal island wildlife refuges in Michigan where conservation plans are being updated, including the eight-island Huron NWR on Lake Superior and nine-island Michigan Islands NWR spread out on Lake Michigan and Huron. Only Harbor Island and west Huron Island are open to the public.

Harbor Island’s plan calls for FWS to work with local friends groups to see what might be accomplished in compatible fashion with FWS wildlife goals and assess how much use the island gets. The plan states that use appears to be increasing.

Local supporters, like Jim Kelley, owner of North Haven gift shop on Drummond Island, said it gets a lot more use than the 200 people annually that federal officials estimate.

“Two hundred is the biggest joke,” said Kelley, who also represents the Drummond Island Tourism Association. “I was telling them that one day in July a couple of years ago, there were 37 on the swim beach alone. Two thousand is a small number.”

Harbor Island’s protected harbor has long made it a popular destination for boaters and increasingly for kaykers who are touring the area or coming over from nearby Drummond Island. Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Kelley and others are forming a friends group called the Harbor Island National Preservation Society.  He said area residents are excited about making the island more people-friendly. Kelley and others hope to see a hiking trail built.  He posted a proposed trail map on Drummond Island’s Facebook site on September 13, 2012.

“We plan to leave 65 percent of the island untouched. It would be a boots-only trail with some benches and signage,” Kelley said. “It would take hikers to the island’s main features. It has one of three last old growth oak forests and pine forests.

Harbor Island National Wildlife Refuge in northern Lake Huron

Hiking is a compatible use, according to Vaniman; likewise building a hiking trail for wildlife observation. But signage is still “open for discussion.”  Some uses will have to be controlled, he said.  FWS staffers have found fire rings on the island, but Vaniman said “it doesn’t look like a huge problem.”

Work planned for the Huron NWR, three miles off the south shore of Lake Superior and 18 miles east of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the central Upper Peninsula, largely involves determining what is to become of the historic buildings on the island. A local friends group raised funds to preserve and keep the lighthouse there, according to Vaniman, who also manages that refuge.

Huron Island NWR is the oldest national wildlife refuge in the Great Lakes region. It was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. The lighthouse on west Huron Island was built in 1868 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Other than the lighthouse and its associated buildings, the rest of the refuge is designated as a federal wilderness.

Copyright © 2012 Howard Meyerson

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