By Russ and Tiña De Maris
RVers spend plenty of time on America’s public lands. National Parks are a natural. National Forests get plenty of visits. Many have discovered the Out West treasures managed by the Bureau of Land Management. But one part of your public lands sometimes gets neglected – Wildlife Refuges, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In an effort to get a bit more recognition, and visits, the Fish and Wildlife Service has a “familiarity” campaign that pairs up Wildlife Refuges near some of the country’s better-known National Parks. Here are a few you might want to write into your summer travel plans.
Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks paired with National Elk Refuge. Distance apart: About 14 miles from Grand Teton, 58 miles from Yellowstone.
If you start from Jackson, you’ll pass National Elk Refuge on your way to the parks. “As people drive north, they can see the refuge – an open landscape to the east,” says Lori Iverson, the refuge’s supervisory outdoor recreation planner. In winter, refuge grasslands and hillsides teem with elk. During the summer, you might spot a fox or a hawk from a highway pull-off. But don’t limit your visit to this short stop. Add a bit more time and you’ll get a richer picture.
For starters, head to the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center in Jackson. The visitor center itself is on refuge land. Displays explain how the refuge sustains wintering elk herds – and how the elk disperse in the summer and return to higher elevations. Interpretive panels also make clear how the refuge, neighboring parks and adjacent Bridger-Teton National Forest all work together to manage for wildlife. “It helps visitors understand the relationship of our adjacent federal lands and how important that is to wildlife,” says Iverson. “We want to have not only open space but connectivity, so animals are free to go from the national park to the forest to the refuge and back.”
The visitor center is staffed by representatives of all the federal land agencies in the Jackson Hole valley, so it’s a great place to pick up information about tours, hikes, fishing permits and wildlife viewing opportunities. Plus, there are videos and historic exhibits. “People often wish they had more time to spend here. We hear that all the time,” says Iverson. The center is open year-round. To learn more about refuge history, add a stop at the refuge’s 1898 Miller Ranch, with its stunning view of the Teton Range. The log cabin was the first property bought by the government to become part of National Elk Refuge, as realization grew early in the 20th century that development was changing elk migration routes and putting the herds at risk. Access to the refuge is limited because it protects key habitat. A winter highlight, however, is a sleigh ride past herds of wintering elk, usually offered from mid-December through March.
Everglades National Park paired with J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Distance apart: About 120 miles.
After marveling at the vastness of Everglades National Park in south Florida, you might welcome a stop at a more compact natural paradise, one with a personal, family-friendly feel. J.N. “Ding” Darling Refuge on Sanibel Island is just the ticket, and one that offers useful contrasts and comparisons in ecology.
Water, particularly shallow water, is what makes both the Everglades and “Ding” Darling Refuge irresistible to colorful wading birds, including snowy egrets, little blue herons and roseate spoonbills, as well as alligators and crocodiles. While the Everglades is a freshwater cypress swamp, “Ding” Darling Refuge is part of a saltwater coastal ecosystem, covered with dunes, maritime hammocks and mangrove forests. At 5,200 acres, the refuge is small next to the Everglades, with the advantage that the wildlife can feel more accessible. Biologists chose this place to study the mangrove cuckoo and reddish egret because of the ease of access to the birds. You might also spot mammals such as the marsh rabbit, bobcat and river otter, which have become scarcer in the Everglades since the invasion of Burmese pythons.
To get the most out of your visit, time your refuge trip for low tide (tide times are posted online). “During low tide in winter, the number of wading birds is astonishing,” says supervisory park ranger Toni Westland. “You can see amazing feeding frenzies of birds close by” from four-mile Wildlife Drive. In the summer, you may spot manatees and dolphins from your kayak or paddleboard. You can even fish for tarpon, snook, redfish and seatrout. Take advantage of the many free interpretative programs and activities: biking, birding and beach walks. The beautiful natural beaches on Sanibel Island offer world-class shelling. Relax on the beach half a day and visit the refuge the other half.
Rocky Mountain National Park. Paired with Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. Distance apart: 80 miles.
Why delay a mountain trip to visit the site of a former arms plant in a place almost as flat as the nearby Denver airport? To make your Colorado visit a plains-to-tundra tour, see the whole Rocky Mountains ecology from the prairie to alpine zones. There are other reasons, too. Like seeing bison in the wild — a highlight of any Western tour. Prairie dog sightings also rank high for visitors; prairie dogs play a key role here, supporting dozens of other species. Thanks to prairie dogs, the refuge attracts lots of raptors. Keep your eye out for eagles (both bald and golden), burrowing owls, kestrels, Swainson’s hawks and other hawks and falcons. Learn why the prairie dogs’ survival matters here to help you appreciate the importance of another small furry mammal — the pika — in the mountains to the north.
Another reason to stop: to marvel at the story of the refuge’s transformation from former chemical weapons manufacturing plant to wildlife haven. “The most common comment we hear from visitors is: ‘We can’t believe this place is here,’ ” says refuge manager Dave Lucas.
Another vital link between refuge and park: The water that starts as alpine snowpack melts and works its way down to the Plains. Without snow in the mountains, water wouldn’t flow in the Plains. Both the park and the Arsenal feed the South Platte River basin, in a reminder of how public lands help maintain healthy water systems. A proposed link, the Rocky Mountain Greenway Trail, may someday provide a continuous corridor between the refuge and the park, for the benefit of wildlife and people.
Mount Rainier National Park. Paired with Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge Distance apart: 78 miles.
Even if you don’t gain a new understanding of the region’s ecology, adding in a stop at this coastal refuge, 45 minutes south of Seattle-Tacoma Airport, should be a no-brainer. The scenery is awe inspiring. With Mount Rainier as a backdrop, the refuge boasts remarkable landscapes and an abundance of wildlife.
But that’s not all the refuge offers. Located where the freshwater of the Nisqually River meets the saltwater of South Puget Sound, the refuge is part of the biologically rich Nisqually River Delta — the last unspoiled major estuary in Puget Sound. The refuge land was set aside to protect the delta and its diversity of fish and wildlife habitats. Ducks, geese, songbirds and migratory shorebirds flock to the area in profusion. Year after year, salmon hatch in the river, head out to sea, then return to their native freshwater streams to spawn. And where does that freshwater come from? Formed more than 15,000 years ago, the Nisqually River begins as the Nisqually Glacier on Mount Rainier, 78 miles away. As co-occupants of the Nisqually River Watershed, the refuge and park share a vital link.
In 2009, the refuge undertook the Pacific Northwest’s largest estuary restoration when it removed a five-mile dike built in the early 1900s and restored tidal flow to 762 acres. Today, an elevated boardwalk extends one mile into the restored estuary and affords a view of the larger landscape. “The ecological connection between the refuge and the national park is most evident when you get a glimpse of Mount Rainier from the estuary, “says refuge manager Glynnis Nakai.
The Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail and the Twin Barns Loop through forested habitats are open dawn to dusk. Enjoy a scenic walk that’s flatter than any you’ll find in the highlands.
There are wildlife refuges in all 50 states, a total of 562 of them. Some allow overnight camping, but you’ll need to check in advance.
All photos: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service