photo of a community of houses near Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge borders Interstate 5 and feels enormous development pressure from the city of Elk Grove, CA, which has doubled in population since 2001. (USFWS)

Some of the wildest critters at Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge are the two-footed ones: the humans. The refuge directly abuts a densely populated urban area in California’s Central Valley. Its neighbor, metropolitan Sacramento, has a population of three million.

Typical urban problems arise on the 6,400 acres managed by Stone Lakes Refuge: theft (copper wire from pumps is the loot of choice), illegal dumping, feral cats and dogs. But, says refuge manager Bart McDermott, the biggest problem with so many people living next door is water.

Stone Lakes Refuge is in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It is a landscape of wetlands, streamside riparian habitat and grasslands on the Pacific Flyway that historically attracted migratory birds such as greater sandhill cranes and colonial nesting species such as great blue herons.

What is now the refuge was drained and plowed under for farming decades ago. In 1994, when the refuge was established and wetlands restoration began, adjacent dairy farms grew crops compatible with wildlife, says McDermott. Fields of alfalfa, hay and other grains provided a natural filter for runoff to the refuge.

As the refuge grew, so did the city of Elk Grove on its eastern border. Elk Grove’s population has doubled to 153,015 in the past decade, and developers have turned wildlife-friendly fields into housing, roads and strip malls. Long-range plans were for the refuge to expand to nearly 18,000 acres, but the frenzied development pushed land prices out of reach for government purchase.

In 1999, a 460-acre subdivision went up within the acquisition boundary, and in the last 10 years, says McDermott, the lower third of the refuge project boundary has been converted from wildlife-compatible crops to vineyards. City officials now hope to expand southward to attract high-tech firms, meaning more acreage could be built up and paved over for commercial development, increasing runoff and pollutants to the refuge.

Additionally, the state of California is considering expanding a canal and system of dikes that would further divert water from the delta to farms in the Central Valley during droughts. "That’s a huge concern," says deputy refuge manager Beatrix Treiterer.

The federal and state governments, under provisions of the Clean Water Act, are now assessing delta water and soil conditions near Stone Lakes Refuge as part of a survey of the nation’s most threatened ecosystems. The report will guide the Environmental Protection Agency on where to invest money and personnel to protect wetlands in the future, but it is not due out until 2013.

Despite the challenges of managing a wildlife refuge in urban America, there are pluses.

Stone Lakes has a dedicated corps of 40 to 50 volunteers who donate time to leading tours and doing other work on the refuge, says visitor services manager Amy Hopperstad. About 3,000 people show up for the refuge’s annual Walk on the Wildside festival, she says, and all the new vegetation around the restored wetlands areas has been planted by volunteers—many of them schoolchildren.

To strengthen the connection with local families, refuge staff is planning to create a "junior biologist trail" with hands-on activities around the wetlands. There will be a hazard-free play area where kids can romp over rocks and play in safe water while parents can relax nearby. Beginning this fall, the refuge headquarters area will be open daily, free to the public, for quiet walks in one of the last wild places in the Central Valley.

"The number of kids we reach is phenomenal," Treiterer says. "Coming to the refuge may be the first time they’ve ever seen a frog...the first time they’ve left their neighborhood!"

That’s an investment in the future, says Hopperstad. "They’re developing a conservation ethic of their own." Mary Tillotson is a frequent contributor to Refuge Update.