Interstate Highway for Wildlife

Seedskadee Refuge project leader Tom Koerner captures a sunset over the Green River in Wyoming.
Credit: Tom Koerner

November 25, 2015 – It’s 1848. You’re on the Oregon Trail in your covered wagon and you’ve reached the Green River in Wyoming. What’s next: ford the river or pay for a ferry to take you across?

Today, when you reach the Green River, the question is: kayaking or fly fishing? “You don’t have the crowds of nearby Yellowstone National Park. You can enjoy a day fishing, and you see lots of wildlife,” says Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge project leader Tom Koerner. The refuge is also open to hunters seeking deer, waterfowl and pronghorns.

Trumpeter swans were reintroduced to Seedskadee Refuge in 1993 and are now thriving.
Credit: Tom Koerner

The Green River and four National Historical Trails – California, Mormon, Oregon and Pony Express - pass through Seedskadee Refuge, once a major thoroughfare for settlers crossing the Rocky Mountains. The refuge, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on November 30, has monuments and interpretive panels on its trails as well as a recreated Lombard Ferry, built in 1997 for the 150th anniversary of the Mormon Trail crossing.

The refuge, about 35 miles northwest of Interstate 80, offers an auto tour route and an Environmental Education Center. Backpacks with nets, magnifying glasses, petri dishes, identification guides and nature journals may be borrowed for nature walks. Resident volunteers are invited to bring their own RVs or stay in the refuge bunkhouse.

Seedskadee Refuge was established to make up for the loss of wetlands caused by construction of Fontenelle and Flaming Gorge dams on the Green River. Water released from Fontenelle Reservoir maintains open water throughout the winter on the northern half of the refuge, attracting thousands of wintering waterfowl, including about 300 trumpeter swans, in an otherwise arid landscape. For migratory birds like warblers, the riparian habitat along the river serves as a gas station with a long menu of insects for foraging. Moose are also plentiful.

A critical migration corridor though southwest Wyoming, Seedskadee Refuge is an “interstate highway for wildlife,” observes Koerner. Large “redds” of kokanee salmon can be seen in October and November, turning the river red as they change into their red spawning colors. It’s a fall feast for the eagles. The refuge is also a major wintering area for pronghorn antelope.

River of the Prairie Hen

Startled ducks take flight in a flurry of wings and golden grain at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming.
Credit: Tom Koerner

The Shoshone gave the Green River its original name of “sisk-a-dee-agie” or “river of the prairie hen.” “The Shoshone were describing the seasonal movement of greater sage-grouse from the surrounding sage steppe into the river valley during the summer,” explains Koerner. “And that still happens today.” As part of the national effort to protect the greater sage-grouse, aversion markers made of reflective vinyl strips have been tacked to 50 miles of wire fencing on the refuge, warning the birds in an effort to reduce wire strikes in low light.

“Near us flows the clear deep water of the Siskadee, and beyond, on every side, is a wide and level prairie, interrupted only by some gigantic peaks of mountains and conical buttes in the distance. The river contains a great number of large trout…Buffalo, antelopes and elk are abundant in the vicinity, and we are therefore living well.”

John Kirk Townsend, 1839