National Wildlife Refuge System

Around the Refuge System

photo of polar bears
Kaktovik, AK, a remote community within Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, has started the Kaktovik Youth Ambassadors program in which local students give safety tips to ecotourists in town to view polar bears. One day last fall 80 polar bears were observed nearby.
Credit: Susanne Miller/USFWS


Before Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge visitor services manager Paula Ogden–Muse helped host a conference of black, Hispanic and female birders, nature photographers and educators at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge last fall, she thought reaching out to ethnic minorities would be all about turning people on to birds’ relevance. But, she learned, it’s more than that.

She learned about the psychology of refuge visits from ethnic perspectives. She learned that urban residents can be fearful of leaving the city limits, let alone visiting a refuge. She learned that lack of transportation is a huge barrier for would–be visitors. She learned that one local Somali resident thought the refuge involved refugees. She learned that some non–traditional birders have been reported to police as suspicious individuals simply for using binoculars and taking pictures.

More than 50 people attended the daylong, multi–generational conference. Ogden–Muse’s takeaway is that if the Refuge System wants to attract traditionally under–served people, it must care for people as well as wildlife. It must consider reaching out to churches, universities and other community organizations to educate urbanites and perhaps facilitate rides to refuges. It must encourage affluent birders who travel thousands of miles to see a rare bird to support birding locally. The Refuge System needs to hire minorities to have credibility among them. It needs to speak their language, be it Spanish or maybe even Somali or Hmong.

In essence, Ogden–Muse says, “if people’s basic needs aren’t met, the salvation of the red–cockaded woodpecker or any bird won’t matter to them.”


  • Kaktovik, a Beaufort Sea coast settlement within Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, launched a program in which local students give safety tips to visitors who come to view polar bears and, in search of that perfect picture, sometimes get too close for comfort.

The Kaktovik Youth Ambassadors are high school students in the community where many residents are Inupiat and most residents respect wild polar bears as both magnificent and potentially dangerous. During the two–month season, four youth ambassadors talked to 194 visitors from 15 countries, according to refuge visitor services supervisor Jennifer Reed.

Their tips to visitors are: 1) View bears only during daylight hours. Be in a group and in a vehicle or a boat. 2) Respect bears’ personal space—avoid close encounters. 3) Stop your approach if a bear notices you. Allow it to resume what it was doing before your arrival.

“We’re keeping people safe and keeping the bears less disturbed,” says 16–year–old Madeline Gordon, a student in the program, which is the brainchild of Kaktovik residents. Another student, 17–year–old Archie Brower, thinks it’s cool to see his community through the eyes of visitors, one of whom told him: “I think that it is awesome that you guys have such an interesting backyard.”

  • In an effort to get people outside and to raise the Refuge System’s profile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional office hosted the Blue Goose GeoTour, a series of 16 refuge–themed geocaches hidden at Anchorage city parks. A geocache is a hidden treasure that an individual finds by using a GPS device or smart phone. Geocaching is a family–friendly outdoor activity that blends technology, gaming and environmental discovery. Each Blue Goose GeoTour geocache featured one of Alaska’s 16 national wildlife refuges. More than 65 people submitted entries to a kickoff contest for the event, which was the idea of Kristen Gilbert, the region’s youth, partnerships and grants coordinator. The Anchorage Parks Foundation and GeocacheAlaska were partners. The geocaches will remain active year–round for geocachers to find.


Two separate volunteer efforts have improved habitat near Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge. First, refuge wildlife biologist Laurie Lomas enlisted Texas A&M University students—in town on break last spring—to help remove invasive water hyacinth from a pond in the city of Liberty’s Municipal Park. With city permission, Lomas and the students spent a March day in kayaks removing all visible water hyacinth from the pond. Lomas herself continued for months to remove the invasive plants from the pond. “Today,” she said,” I am declaring the project over. It is hyacinth–free. The project was completed by student volunteer labor and was 100 percent chemical free. And on top of that, we had a blast … The students got messy and mucky, one even went overboard on her kayak, but it was a great project.” Then, during National Wildlife Refuge Week, 35 volunteers from General Electric Corp. and others slashed through brambles and cypress knees to blaze a half–mile hiking trail from Municipal Park to a refuge bayou, where a future boardwalk could continue the trail. The refuge, which conserves almost 25,000 acres, is an hour northeast of Houston.


An epizootic hemorrhagic disease outbreak killed 108 white–tailed deer at Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. The deer were found dead at the refuge in September and October. More than 11,000 deer were killed across Michigan in that period by the disease. It is spread by the bite of a midge, a small fly. The Shiawassee Refuge, whose deer population is generally 300 to 400, is one of three refuges nationwide collaborating with the Quality Deer Management Association to conserve wildlife on land near refuges (see November/December 2012 issue of Refuge Update).

Chesapeake Bay Refuges App

With iPhones in hand, visitors to refuges in the Chesapeake Bay region can now photograph and share sightings with a worldwide community of wildlife watchers. The free National Wildlife Refuges Chesapeake Bay app is available for download from the App Store. The app came online during National Wildlife Refuge Week. App users can post photos of plants and animals they find at Chesapeake Bay region refuges and tap into a global network of experts for information about the species. As postings accumulate, scientists and refuge managers will be able to view the data to see where and when species inhabit specific locations. The app was developed through a partnership between the Chesapeake Conservancy and National Geographic Society with the Service’s support. It incorporates the Project Noah wildlife photo–sharing service. Project Noah allows users to create “missions” to pursue, and the app features a mission for 11 Chesapeake Bay region refuges. The app includes maps, hours and guides for those refuges.

Partners in Conservation Awards

Two national wildlife refuge groups were among 17 organizations that received 2012 Department of the Interior Partners in Conservation Awards. The Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area Partnership was honored for efforts to conserve one of eastern North America’s last great wetland ecosystems. Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area was established as the 556th refuge last January. It eventually will span more than 150,000 acres in central Florida and protect, restore and conserve habitat for hundreds of rare species, including the Florida panther, Florida black bear, Florida scrub–jay, Everglades snail kite and Eastern indigo snake. The Friends of Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge Partnership was cited for efforts that involve citizens partnering with nonprofit organizations and federal, state and local governments to create the refuge on the Illinois–Wisconsin border northwest of Chicago. Last August, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar authorized establishment of the refuge, which will provide up to 11,200 acres of habitat for wildlife as well as recreational opportunities.


photo of deer
Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge has opened a nine–mile Wildlife Drive auto tour. The tour enables visitors to see bison, deer (mule and white–tailed), prairie dogs, waterfowl and various birds just minutes from downtown Denver. The route also provides access to a system of hiking and snowshoeing trails through grassland, woodland and wetland habitats. (Mike Mauro)
Credit: Mike Mauro

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Refuge Update January/February 2013

Last updated: December 30, 2012