Behind the Scenes at Wildlife Refuges
By: Kylie Campbell and James Puckett
Growing up we both spent lots of time at wildlife refuges, and always had the impression that these areas were largely left to function on their own with little human intervention. The first two months of our cross country tour of the National Wildlife Refuge System have opened our eyes to how wrong we were! We’ve had the pleasure of serving alongside staff members “behind the scenes” at multiple refuges and we are proud of how we’ve helped wildlife and improved visitors’ experiences on the refuges. The wide array of management strategies that we’ve seen have changed our perspectives dramatically and given us a deeper appreciation for the hard work that refuge staff puts in for the benefit of communities and wildlife.
The first refuge we visited was Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Minnesota. This refuge is home to a diversity of species from beavers and muskrats to herons and sandhill cranes. At Sherburne we got our first glimpse at how important public lands are to the communities around them. One couple was particularly memorable; they visited the refuge almost every day that we were out sampling and they were so excited to share their favorite memories and photos of the refuge with us.
When we arrived at Sherburne NWR, refuge staff was just finishing a prescribed burn. It was fascinating to learn about the benefits of fire and rewarding to share this knowledge with curious visitors. It was astounding to see how fast the plants grew back in just the two week period that we spent there. The prescribed burns help maintain the native Oak Savannah habitat that has been diminished from 50 million acres prior to European settlement to less than 30,000 acres currently. Restoring this fire-dependent habitat is critically important for many endangered and threatened species. Fire is key to these restoration efforts because it opens up the canopy and removes invasive species. We learned that after refuge staff burns an area, they often reseed it with native wildflower seeds to help restore prairie habitat. We never would have guessed the level of planning and management that goes into these systems!
Also at Sherburne, we were able to shadow the biologist while he did rounds to check the water levels and adjust the water control structures as needed in various pools across the refuge. We learned how different bird species and their food sources need precise water levels, and laughed with the biologist when he described how beavers often disagree with the water management plans and attempt to dam up the water control structures.
While all refuges are unique, something all of them have shared is the deep connections that visitors make to these spaces: we met a woman at Ridgefield NWR in Portland, OR who truly embodied this connection. She spent a while talking with us and she got emotional when she discussed how blessed she feels to be able to experience the wildlife at the refuge, from playful river otters to magnificent bald eagles. Her genuine gratitude was heartwarming and really opened our eyes to how the refuge system connects people to the natural world. Tualatin River NWR, also in Portland, is a great example of the importance of refuges to people in the area. It’s creation began with a grassroots effort in the community, when the people in the area recognized how quickly their open spaces were being developed. In 1990 a local citizen proposed the creation of a wildlife refuge, and the refuge was created two years later when a couple donated the first 12 acres of land to USFWS. The public continues to be heavily involved in the restoration efforts at Tualatin River NWR.
The third refuge that we visited in the Portland area was Steigerwald Lake NWR. The behind the scenes work at this refuge is still in the planning process, but will dramatically improve habitat for salmon and other wildlife once completed. Currently, the refuge is separated from the Columbia River by a large dike. Refuge staff are planning to breach part of this dike and restore connections between the Columbia River and its floodplain to improve habitat. It sure will be exciting to visit this refuge in the future and see how wildlife responds to these improvements!
Across the refuges that we have visited we have been astounded by the effort that volunteers put in to help support the refuge. Without the hardworking hands of refuge volunteers, many refuge programs and projects would not be possible. In fact, a staff member at Dungeness NWR told us that last year their group of volunteers contributed enough hours to equal the time of five full time staff members.
It has been an amazing learning experience to understand and help with all of the different projects that go on behind the scenes in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Our experiences have shown us that management actually has a large role in ensuring that habitat is ideal for a diverse range of wildlife species and we’re looking forward to learning more as we visit more refuges!
USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern
Kylie is recent Virginia Tech graduate with a passion for public land conservation and outdoor recreation. Kylie Campbell grew up playing in the streams on her family’s farm in Virginia, and this lifelong interest in water inspired her to pursue a degree in Water: Resources, Management, and Policy. Kylie aims to use her degree to understand and protect America’s water resources through a career in public service.
USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern
James Puckett is a also a recent Virginia Tech graduate. He is an avid outdoorsman and spends all his free time outdoors. He grew up on the tidal wetlands of North Carolina experiencing wildlife within estuaries. He studied Political Science and has two minors in Environmental Policy and Planning and Public Urban Affairs. He hopes to implement long lasting policies to improve natural areas and to protect nature for future generations to come.