“It has been a privilege to work alongside Dr. Davis, and I hope he continues to volunteer for many, many years to come,” says Scott A. Williams, wetland district manager and federal wildlife officer at Crosby Wetland Management District in North Dakota, one of the places Davis volunteered this past summer. Photo by USFWS
The National Wildlife Refuge System includes more than 560 refuges, 38 wetland management districts (WMD) and other protected areas. Volunteer John Davis, a self-described “Refuge Rat,” has visited half.
“I have visited 294 national wildlife refuges or wetland management districts, in every region of the FWS except for the Pacific Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands,” he says. And he has put in lots of work at the more than 20 refuges.
He says his 3,500 or so volunteer hours may not compare to some full-time volunteers, but don’t tell that to the staffs where he has given his time.
“Dr. Davis has as much passion for the National Wildlife Refuge System as any one of its employees,” says Scott A. Williams, wetland district manager and federal wildlife officer at Crosby Wetland Management District in North Dakota, one of the places Davis volunteered this past summer.
Davis helps install a gauge at Lake Zahl National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota. Photo by USFWS
“John cares deeply for the National Wildlife Refuge System and Fort Niobrara NWR is fortunate to have been one of the refuges that benefited from his volunteer service,” says Kathy McPeak, biologist at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge.
Davis grew up and still lives in upstate New York. He visited his first refuge when he was 17. “My brother-in-law took me there—Great Swamp [National Wildlife Refuge] in New Jersey—and I have vivid memories of the boardwalks through the swamps.”
But what changed the college teacher into a lifelong volunteer and “Refuge Rat”?
“In 1998, I answered an Internet advertisement looking for a volunteer at Fort Niobrara [National Wildlife Refuge] for a special summer project: a social carrying capacity survey of visitors floating the Niobrara River through the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge,” he remembers.
At his first volunteer stint, surveyed visitors floating the Niobrara River through Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS
He got the gig, and after spending the summer designing and working on the survey at the refuge in Nebraska, he and his supervisor at the time, Mark Lindvall, reported the results at a Wilderness Science Conference.
“This study and his recommendations … were a great help in assuring a wilderness experience to our visitors,” remembers Lindvall, a retired assistant refuge manager.
It had a big effect on Davis, too.
“That summer’s experience turned me on to the wonders and the diversity of the NWR System, and I have spent the last 20 years volunteering and occasionally working as a contractor for the Service on projects all across the U.S.”
Davis’ working career teaching physics, math, GIS, ecology, environmental studies and conservation biology in colleges and universities provided him with knowledge that refuges loved to mine, and, he gave that knowledge away freely.
At Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, Davis has worked, as recently as this summer, to help calculate visitor use on the refuge and set up invasive species inventory and monitoring. He “enthusiastically shares his knowledge of GIS and related technology to obtain quantifiable results,” Refuge Manager Pete Schmidt says.
Data analysis and management, involving his students in the development of a wilderness management plan, easement mapping and numerous GIS projects are just a few of the jobs that took advantage of his career skills.
After his first stint at Fort Niobara, McPeak says, Davis “graciously agreed to help me with additional data analyses/modeling in development of our controversial River Recreation Management Plan and various biological projects over the years. “
Of course, other jobs read like ones many of our volunteers tackle: hand-pulling invasive plants, surveys and counts, sign replacement and fence repair, staffing the visitor center desk, and cleaning back-country toilets.
As you might imagine, Davis has a hard time picking favorites, but some of his memorable volunteer experiences include raptor surveys at Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Montana or wrestling calves for branding during the annual bison roundup at Fort Niobrara.
“Every refuge,” Davis says, “from the smallest easement refuge to the remote wild refuges of Alaska, has something amazing to offer the casual visitor or the volunteer.”
He saw one of those amazing somethings when he was volunteering at Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. “I was walking on a trail in an old stream channel, with eroded volcanic rock walls above me on both sides, and I came around a bend to see a golden eagle perched on a rock ledge just about three feet higher than my head,” Davis recalls. “He took off and flew right past me at eye level, practically within arm’s reach.“
One of Davis’ favorite refuges is Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota. Photo by Sarah Shpak/USFWS
Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota also amazes him and is one of his favorite refuges. He calls it “a particularly beautiful example of the Prairie Pothole Region.”
“In the spring,” he says, “when everything is green and lush, the wetlands are like blue diamonds in an emerald carpet. Everyone thinks of prairie as flat, but as a matter of fact the Prairie Pothole Region is all folds, contours, swells and swales. The light in the evening or morning plays across the landscape emphasizing the shadows and highlighting every topographic feature. It’s breathtaking, especially if you take the time to climb to the viewing platform on the old fire tower, which is still open to the public.”
“Every refuge has some interesting feature, some scenic wonder, a cultural or historical treasure, a wildlife adventure, or a chance for quiet contemplation in the beauty and tranquility of nature,” he says. “Every refuge or Waterfowl Production Area (managed by a WMD) is a national treasure.”
He’s not done giving either. “I am very proud of having contributed to the operation of the Refuge System, and I look forward to many more years of volunteering.”
Davis repairs a kiosk at Lake Zahl National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota. Photo by USFWS
This will make Crosby’s Williams happy.
“It has been a privilege to work alongside Dr. Davis,” he says, “and I hope he continues to volunteer for many, many years to come.”
Matt Trott, External Affairs