10,000-Plus Hours and Counting
Refuge volunteers do extraordinary things. Some devote years and years to the effort.

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What would national wildlife refuges do without volunteers to help greet visitors, staff events, maintain trails and conserve wildlife habitat? Less. Much less.

And then there are the super volunteers — people who donate an amazing 10,000 hours or more of their time to refuges. That amounts to roughly five years of full-time work, according to the Office of Personnel Management. By a common estimate, those 10,000 hours represent a $240,000 savings to refuges.

What leads some refuge volunteers to give so much of themselves, week after week, year after year — often well past retirement age?

The answers are as varied as the people who do it. Meet a few of the National Wildlife Refuge System’s remarkable 10,000-plus-hour club members.

Volunteers Betty and Chuck Mulcahy lead an interpretive hike at Imperial National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona and California..

Chuck and Betty Mulcahy, National Elk Refuge, Wyoming  — 11,000+ hours each

Past professions: Airline ground operations (Chuck); flight attendant and dental assistant (Betty)

Volunteer tasks include: Radio track wolves and ungulates (hooved mammals); monitor trumpeter swan nests; use their skills as trained naturalists to excite visitors about refuge wildlife.

Why they volunteer: “Refuges are really jewels. It’s so good to build respect and interest for them.” — Chuck

What they like best: Interacting with visitors. “We’ve never gotten blasé about doing what we do. I like to feel I’m seeing all of this for the first time, as many visitors are. We try to feed that passion …” — Chuck.  “[Working for the refuge] is good for us. It’s a symbiotic relationship.” — Betty

Moment to treasure: “We climb the butte once a week and wait ’til we can see all the swans and cygnets. We mark where they are on a map.” — Betty

Said of them: “They’re stellar volunteers … They inspire our visitors to want to know more.” — Natalie Fath, former volunteer coordinator, National Elk Refuge

Volunteer Larry Fudge waits to guide bison into chutes from the roundup pen for their annual health screening at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa.

Larry Fudge, Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Iowa  —  11,000+ hours  (Note: Larry Fudge retired in 2021 as a refuge volunteer.)

Past profession: Junior high school science teacher; principal; school superintendent

Volunteer tasks include: Collects and cleans harvested seeds; takes part in annual bison roundup and screening; maintains trails; promotes refuge to community groups; clears invasive trees with a chainsaw and stump grinder to help restore endangered oak savanna

Why he volunteers: “It gives me a chance to work outside … Also, I like working with people … To show how much I appreciate them, every Monday I take a 9-by-13 pan of brownies I make and share them with refuge employees and volunteers.”

Moments to treasure: When barn owls began using a nesting box he built for them. “That was pretty exciting.”

Said of him: “An amazing worker, dedicated and talented … a great refuge ambassador.” — Nancy Corona, visitor services manager, Neal Smith Refuge

The late Frank McGivrey, left, prepares to band a Canada goose at Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland.

Frank McGilvrey, Patuxent Research Refuge, Maryland  — 27,000 hours (Note: Long-time Patuxent Refuge volunteer Frank McGilvrey died in June 2020. This profile was written before his death.)

Past profession: Wildlife research biologist, Patuxent Refuge

Volunteer tasks include: Weekly waterbird surveys; songbird and wood duck nest box surveys; invasive plant removal

What he likes best: “I really enjoy working with young people. [He mentored nearly 100 interns over the years.] They’re so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”

Moments to treasure: Watching otters play. Watching a red fox catch a Canada goose. “You never know for sure what you’re going to find.”

Advice to others on volunteering: Biological fieldwork “can be strenuous …. You can’t mind the ticks, the deer flies, the [mo]squitoes, getting dirty, being sweaty… If you’re not willing to get down and dirty, you can’t be a lot of help [in the field]… As long as I’m having fun, I’ll keep doing it.”

Said of him: He’s “a human dynamo.” — Patuxent Refuge volunteer coordinator Diana Ogilvie

Refuge volunteers Karen Yochem, right, and Barb Sullivan, left, prepare to raise the flag at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Washington.

Karen Yochem, Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Washington  — 18,000 hours

Past profession: Secretary, state government

Volunteer tasks include: Greeting visitors; answering phones; collecting fees

Why she volunteers: “It’s such a joy to work here. That’s why I’ve stayed as long as I have.”

What she likes best: “I get to see lots of people, talk to them … We get all kinds of questions. I try to come up with the right answers.”

Long view: Volunteering at the refuge has “really helped me as much as I’ve maybe helped the refuge. It gives me a reason to get up every day … It’s just a real pretty picture down here.”

Said of her: “She is our rock.” — Glynnis Nakai, project leader, Nisqually Refuge Complex

Left: Wally Sternberg replaces a rotted landscape timber at Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. Right: Carolyn Sternberg primes a fence at Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge. Both refuges are part of the Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges Complex.

Wally and Carolyn Sternberg, Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges— 14,000+ hours each

Past professions: Power station chemist (Wally); banking and direct sales (Carolyn)

Tasks they’ve handled: Maintenance; cleanup; habitat restoration; special events

Why they volunteer: “We work as a team… It’s a pretty exciting way to spend our time.” — Carolyn

What they like best: “We’re out in the country. No lights, no traffic, no noises… We talk with [visitors]. I enjoy that. And the staff is great.” — Carolyn. “It’s fun to go back to the places and see how you’re made a difference. Especially with boardwalks; some section we had to completely rebuild.” — Wally

Moment to treasure: “Air boat rides and laughing with [deputy project leader] Pon [Dixson]. Finding flying squirrels in the nest boxes. Kayaking out to Lake Pontchartrain. Overnight trips to Bayou Teche, Delta and Atchafalaya Refuges.” — Carolyn and Wally

Said of them: They are “absolutely amazing.” — Becky Larkins, supervisory refuge ranger, Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuges Complex

Refuge volunteer Jim Montgomery removes invasive phragmites from Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.

Jim Montgomery, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico — 15,000+ hours

Past profession: Biology instructor, junior college; instructor, New Mexico Military Institute

Volunteer tasks include: Monitoring lesser sandhill cranes and interior least terns; weekly crane counts and roost counts; small mammal surveys

Why he volunteers: “I get pleasure out of doing it, and I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile … If I had [the decision] to do over, I would do it again.”

Moment to treasure: “Watching 10,000 cranes take off within 30 minutes.”

Said of him: “He’s our sandhill crane expert. He’s a walking encyclopedia … a fixture to the refuge … He’s a go-to guy all the time.” — Steve Alvarez, outdoor recreation planner, Bitter Lake Refuge

Refuge volunteer Reese Lukei, in the red jacket, poses with a crew from Dominion Virginia Power after they installed an osprey platform at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.

Reese Lukei, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia  — 10,000 hours

Past professions: Certified public accountant and professional musician

Volunteer tasks include: Wood building (pole barns, kiosks, fishing piers; boardwalk trails) and maintenance; bird banding; supervising nine-person volunteer maintenance team; tracking raptors, including eagles and peregrine falcons; nature interpretation

Why he volunteers: “I’ve always been an outdoorsman … I like nature, particularly birds. My wife says it’s an incurable disease.”

What he likes best: “The camaraderie with the guys on the crew … With every project, if there are six of us on the job, there are six opinions. As long as they do it my way, everything’s okay.”

Long view: “Volunteering at a refuge is one of the most satisfying things a person can do that benefits both wildlife and people. That is why the crew has been together for 25 years… Our wives renamed us Reese’s Pieces, which the guys hate. They bought us orange hats. None of us will wear them.”

Said of him: “An invaluable volunteer for over 30 years … Back Bay Refuge would be unrecognizable were it not for his dedication, hard work and love.” — Erica Ryder, visitor services specialist, Back Bay Refuge

Story Tags

Animal health
Habitat conservation
Habitat restoration
Invasive species
Wildlife management
Wildlife refuges

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