Conserving the Nature of America
Have Some Offbeat Nature Fun on National Wildlife Refuges

March 1, 2017


Vanessa Kauffman

Tried-and-true nature events such as bird walks, ranger-led hikes and wildlife viewing tours will never go out of fashion at national wildlife refuges. Like your nature a bit offbeat? Some national wildlife refuges have read your mind.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for managing more than 850 million acres of lands and waters in the National Wildlife Refuge System, including five marine national monuments, 566 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts. Every state and U.S. territory has at least one national wildlife refuge.

Consider these events scheduled for upcoming months or use the zip code locator to find a national wildlife refuge near you.

Head to the refuge for a hands-on experience exploring real bison bones and watch staff assemble a bison skeleton from head to tail. Learn the secrets bones can tell us about a bison and see first-hand how the large bones provide bison with the body support and protection they need to move and thrive in the prairie. Recommended for all ages. Reservations are required, please call: 303-289-0930

Unearth a distinctive souvenir from just below the salt-encrusted surface of Northwestern Oklahoma: selenite crystals with a unique hourglass shape. Digging for selenite — a form of the mineral gypsum — predates the1930 establishment of Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge has allowed the practice to continue.

Digging is allowed on about 200 of the 13,000 acres of salt flats. Wear a hat and sunblock. Bring plenty of bottled water and a change of clothes — crystal hunting can be messy. Diggers can bring home up to 10 pounds of crystals a day or one large cluster. Selling the crystals is prohibited. For more information, call: 580-626-4794.

Prairie-chickens are in the mood for romance way past Valentine’s Day. If you can’t make it to the festival, you can visit Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge for its Saturday tours to see males perform their flamboyant courtship dance in the spring — complete with foot stomps, fanned tail feathers, inflated yellow air sacs and strange booming sounds. Bring your binoculars for a morning trip through the stunning coastal prairies of southeastern Texas. Save time for refuge wildflower tours and walks to explore the diversity of the habitat. For more information, call: 979-234-3021.

Head into the woods after dark with Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge staff and hear the howl of endangered red wolves. Both spring wolf howls are free. Summertown howling events (every Wednesday in June, July and August, from 7:30 to 9 p.m.) cost $10 each for adults. Children under 12 attend free. Meet at Creef Cut Wildlife Trail parking lot (Milltail Road and Hwy 64 west of Manns Harbor). For more information, e-mail or call 252-216-9464.

Each spring, thousands of elk at the National Elk Refuge shed their antlers and begin migrating north. Jackson District Boy Scouts help refuge staff gather the antlers, which are auctioned in the Jackson town square. A portion of the Elk Fest proceeds benefits National Elk Refuge conservation efforts.

Antler collection is permitted only by special agreement between the refuge and the Jackson District Boy Scouts. Others may not collect antlers. Weeks of preparation – as well as collecting, sorting, tagging and weighing – precede the auction event.

Fun continues through the week. Explore the refuge for a chance to see wild elk that haven’t left yet. Stay to compete in the Mountain Man Rendezvous, a weeklong competition in archery and knife throwing, or sample the High Noon Chili Cook-Off. Register for the antler auction at 307-733-5935 or e-mail Check the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce for updates.

Join a free 10-mile bike ride on the refuge’s Prairie Parkway Bike Trail. If you’re lucky, you might see bison and elk along the way. Native wildflowers are an even surer bet. When you’re done cycling, hike the trails, and explore the refuge visitor center. Not sure you want to commit to 10 miles? Opt for the Family Fun Ride (1.5 miles) instead. Sag wagons will also be available. For more information, e-mail or call 515-994-3400.

What better time than National Moth Week to shine a light on these oft-slighted but ecologically important butterfly cousins? See and photograph some of the more than 750 species of moths documented around the refuge headquarters building. Using online biological data depositories, you can help map moth distribution and add to information on moth life history. Black lights and mercury vapor lights will aid in attracting and viewing moths. All ages are welcome. For more information, call: 936-336-9786.

  • Witness wild migrating monarchs
    Various national wildlife refuges

Lace up your sneakers and head to a refuge for monarch tagging. Join other festival-goers in racing around the refuges, nets in hand, to collect monarch butterflies for tagging. Then turn over your catch — carefully — to the pros to tag the colorful insects.

Monarch Madness
Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge – Prairie City, IA
September 16, 9 a.m. to noon
Participants will catch the monarchs, staff will tag them and the one who caught it gets to release it! For more information, e-mail or call 515-994-3400.

Monarch Mania
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge – Stafford, KS
September 16, 2017, 9 a.m. to noon
Join in on monarch catching and watch the staff tag. Enjoy crafts, netting demonstrations, a live butterfly pavilion and face-painting. For more information, e-mail or call 620-486-2393.

29th Annual Monarch Butterfly Festival
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge – St. Marks, FL
October 28, 2017, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Watch biologists tag monarchs and release them. Take part in crafts, talk with monarch butterfly researchers and other exhibitors, learn about landscaping to help all pollinators, view wildlife on wagon tours, listen to music and much more! For more information, e-mail or call 850-925-6121.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit

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