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Behind the Scenes at Wildlife Refuges

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.

James surveys a visitor at Sherburne NWR. The prairie on the right side of the road shows evidence of the recent prescribed fire while the left side of the road shows how quickly plants regenerate after an earlier burn. May 2018. Photo by: Kylie Campbell

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.

Views and 4-legged visitors at Portland-Vancouver refuges. June 2018. Photos by: Kylie Campbell

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.

We worked alongside a team of volunteers at Dungeness NWR to trap and remove invasive European Green crabs. July 2018.

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!

While working on invasive green crab removal we spotted a Giant Pacific Octopus washed up in the mudflats. July 2018.

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!

Kylie Campbell

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.

James Puckett

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.

As the Birds Fly

As the Birds Fly

by: Justin Gole & Nicole Stagg

We will be spending our time traveling along the Eastern Shoreline and the Midwest, and telling the story of how we migrate from refuge to refuge. Our trek across the country began with a 3-day drive from Fort Collins, CO to Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in New Orleans, LA. The first night on the road, we caravanned with another team heading to Hagerman NWR in Texas. A night of campfire songs and s’mores was a great way to kick off the survey season! The next morning we drove most of the day, stopping at Wichita Falls for a short side trip. As the sun set that night at Tyler State Park in Texas, we could hardly sleep in anticipation of arriving at our first refuge!

Nicole in front of historic Wichita Falls. March 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

We arrived at Bayou Sauvage having traveled more than 1,300 miles. To put that into perspective, the previously endangered brown pelican, the state bird of Louisiana, can only travel about 300 miles in the same amount of time.

Bayou Sauvage is the 2nd largest urban refuge, located within New Orleans city limits, right on Lake Pontchartrain. Most visitors come to the refuge for birding, fishing, or exploring the trails. We were amazed to see the before and after pictures of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina caused to the old growth forest but the refuge staff and volunteers have done amazing work rebuilding the area. We got to contribute to the effort by participating in a cleanup day and left New Orleans with confidence that the refuge is on the mend!

Justin helping to collect trash at the Crabbing Bridge at Bayou Sauvage NWR. March 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

Our 560-mile drive from Bayou Sauvage to Okefenokee NWR (in Native tongue “land of the trembling earth”) was completed in one day; this distance would have been a 2-day trip for the local Sandhill crane. Compared to Bayou Sauvage, Okefenokee is definitely a rural refuge. The clear night skies are well known, and people travel from around the world to gaze at the night stars, as well as see the gators and carnivorous plants. Okefenokee had Michigan native Justin trembling a little bit. While we saw over half a dozen alligators at Bayou Sauvage, that was nothing compared to Okefenokee where there are an estimated 100,000 gators on the more than 400,000 acres of refuge land!

Adult male alligator sunbathing at Okefenokee’s west entrance Stephen C. Foster State Park. April 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

We had a great time at the refuge, attending a pizza and bonfire night for volunteer appreciation and frequently embarking on late night quests to find reptiles such as water and corn snakes.

We left Okefenokee and traveled 700 miles in two days, winding up at Crab Orchard NWR, which was established in 1947 as a haven for nesting Canada geese. The geese could have made the trip in less than one day, but we took a break and spent a beautiful evening with our supervisor Katie Lyon at Cheatham Lake outside Nashville, TN.

After our brief pit stop and reunion, we were welcomed into the tight knit community of Crab Orchard NWR. We were lucky enough to be invited to the annual volunteer banquet at Giant City Lodge (which was featured in the movie “Gone Girl”). The highlights of the evening included learning that volunteers contributed 20,853 hours during 2017, a trivia competition about the refuge, and a dazzling, customized rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend” by one of the members of the local Friends group sung to the refuge manager.

High water at Crab Orchard Lake Dam after a week of rain. April 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

Crab Orchard NWR is a fisher’s paradise with three large lakes. A lake-record breaking 11.79 pound bass was caught the weekend before we came into town! Locals speculated that in order for a fish that big to be present, someone must have caught some bass in Florida, brought them up to Illinois and released them into the lake.

Our next refuge was Blackwater NWR in Maryland, where we managed to see a screech owl sticking its head out of a tree, several bald eagles, and osprey nesting over the water our first day when Blackwater Visitor Services Manager Ray was showing us around the refuge. Blackwater is home to 30-40 nesting pairs of bald eagles, and a couple hundred come to the refuge during summer months for feeding. The bald eagles roam the skies, traveling over 125 miles a day in search of food, so if you visit you will certainly see some if you pay attention!

During our time at Blackwater, Justin went out fishing several times to try and curtail the invasive snakehead population. Nicole went out on the Wildlife Drive most mornings determined to capture a better picture of the screech owl — and was met with success!

The Eastern Screech Owl at Blackwater NWR that Nicole was determined to get a photo of. May 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

We also had the chance to take a trip to Assateague National Park to see the wild horses, and stopped at Crabcake Factory USA for crab cakes.

Wild horses found on the entrance road to Assateague National Park. May 2018. Photo: Nicole Stagg

All in all, our adventure so far has been better than we could have imagined and we are excited to share it going forward!

Justin Gole

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

Justin graduated from Grand Valley State University in 2015 with a Bachelors in Accounting. He spent a few years in Management for Huntington National Bank before making the shift towards following his passion for the great outdoors and leaving the world a better place than he found it.

Nicole Stagg

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

A south Louisiana girl, Nicole graduated from Louisiana State University (LSU). She majored in Natural Resource Ecology and Management with a focus in Wildlife Habitat. Last summer she served as an intern at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia and fell in love with the Refuge System. Nicole is interested in pursuing a career in human dimensions and environmental education.

Road Warriors

Road Warriors

By: Michelle Ferguson and Angelica Varela

Hello! And welcome to our first blog. We have logged thousands of miles so far in our journey and we’ve only just begun! Join us road warriors as we drive across the states, jumping head first into new rhythms at every refuge.

Night one on the road we spent our evening camping under the stars in Moab before driving to Desert National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near Las Vegas, Nevada. A rainstorm welcomed us to Las Vegas, and the refreshing scent of creosote hung in the air. A smell quite familiar to us Southwest gals, we were grateful our first refuge felt close to home. One night at Desert, we grabbed our headlamps and trekked along muddy cattails under the moonlight surveying the endangered relict leopard frog with researcher Rebecca Rivera from University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Rebecca works to restore populations of relict leopard frogs in their historic range. After a few weeks of seeing more lizards, Cooper’s hawks, and burrowing owls than visitors, we traded our hiking boots for flip-flops and headed to the beach.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge, March 2018. Photos: Michelle Ferguson

San Diego welcomed us with kind hearts and a glorious amount of tacos. We also got a taste of the challenges that urban refuges face while working at San Diego and San Diego Bay NWRs. There is a continuous battle with misused trails and graffiti, and the staff’s tenacity when it came to maintaining their refuge grounds was impressive.
After long days of visitor surveying, we came home to our groovy hostel two blocks from the Pacific Ocean, enjoying evenings around the bonfire teaching our new international friends how to make s’mores. April 15th, toes in the sand, we watched our final sunset on the west coast before an early start the next morning with a long drive to Marble Falls, TX.

San Diego Bay NWR, April 2018. Photo: Angelica Varela.

Taking a 180-degree turn from living in San Diego, where the hang loose beach lifestyle echoed in the streets below our window all night, we landed in a quiet 1960’s ranch house at Balcones Canyonlands NWR. Located in Texas Hill Country, our stay was peaceful with no neighbors or Wi-Fi for miles.

During our second week of sampling at Balcones Canyonlands, we were extremely fortunate to see the Golden-Cheeked Warbler flying above our sampling spot. The Golden-Cheeked Warbler is an endangered species that only nests in the oak-juniper woodlands of Texas. This wildlife interaction was considerably more favorable than the encounters with our red wasp, wolf spider and Texas redheaded centipede roommates.

Balcones Canyonlands NWR. Warbler Vista Observation Deck, April 2018. Photo: Michelle Ferguson.

After travelling from Texas across the Midwest, we sat on the edge of West Virginia with our back porch looking out across Ohio River Islands NWR. Here we learned all about freshwater mussels’ life cycle and the lures they display to attract fish. While most of the refuge staff focused on the “May is Mussel Month” initiatives, one staff member was eager to teach us local bird song mnemonics, the most memorable of which were the barred owl song, “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all!” and the eastern towhee’s call, “drink your teeeeea!” To this day, we sing along with them when we hear their cries.
Our last evening in town brought in thunderstorms. Afterward, the refuge manager scooped us up to hike through the backwoods behind our apartment. We stumbled upon a twinkling array of fireflies under a low, moonlit canopy still dripping from the rainfall.

Ohio River Islands NWR, May 2018. Photo: Michelle Ferguson.

Promethea Moth at Ohio River Islands NWR, May 2018. Photo: Michelle Ferguson.

Although working with the public sometimes results in uncomfortable or negative interactions, we have found ourselves most uplifted by an unexpected piece of the job. Among our travels for survey sampling, we have the opportunity to get to know many remarkable women in science at each refuge we have visited. In a male-dominated field, we stand at every refuge with females who are holding their ground: researchers, biologists, fire dispatchers, and managers to name a few. These women are leaders. They have shown us to stand strong as females in conservation careers. As two aspiring women in the environmental sciences, we have felt immense inspiration from the women on our journey. The phrase, ‘I wish I had something like this when I was growing up,’ is something we hear often. We are humbled to know that these women helped pave the trail we chose to walk on. Encouraged by these women, we are getting our chance to lay yet another layer on this rough trail to make it easier for future women in science to hike upon. We are grateful to know we walk among and behind hard-working women in our careers and we are grateful for the opportunity American Conservation Experience has given us to meet them.

Michelle Ferguson

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

I’m Michelle, a Colorado native and recent graduate from Northern Arizona University with my masters in Environmental Sciences and Policy. I’m interested in the human dimensions of natural resources, and using social science to inform conservation work. Specifically, I am interested in the balance of meeting human needs without compromising ecological resources.

Angelica Varela

USFWS NWR Visitor Survey Intern

I’m Angelica. I grew up in the harsh Sonoran desert of Arizona. I received my undergrad in Biological Science at Arizona State University and I hope to pursue my masters soon. I am interested in birds, specifically raptors, and hope to work with them one day.