5 Proven Places to Spot Wildlife Today

The U.S. and Canada are home to some incredible and unique wildlife

The United States and Canada have incredible diversity in both landscapes and natural life. From glaciers, geysers, marine ecosystems, and rich plant life that sustains incredible flora and fauna, there are so many ways to explore both nature and wildlife. Most travelers tend to gravitate toward the most popular and known areas. But there are many lesser-known areas that are a wildlife lover’s delight like epic bird migrations to viewing endangered species like manatees in the wild. And the best part is that many of these places are on public lands, accessible to all.

Pronghorns in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1 of 5: Pronghorn Antelopes

WHERE: Custer State Park, South Dakota; Upper Green River Basin, Wyoming, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota; along I-15 in southeastern Idaho and south-central Montana

Traveling at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour across the sagebrush country, pronghorn is the fastest land mammal in North America. Although pronghorn are not as fast as cheetahs, they can maintain a fast speed for a longer period of time than cheetahs.

Pronghorns in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pronghorns are generally reddish-tan in color with white patches on the chest, neck, underbelly, and rear-end. Pronghorn have large eyes and fantastic vision. Their large eyes can spot predators from very far away which is helpful on their flat grassland habitat. Both males and females can have horns although female horns are much smaller reaching only 4 inches in length whereas male horns can be as long as 20 inches.

Sagebrush leaves are an important source of food and water for most pronghorns particularly in winter. They are plant eaters feeding on flowering plants, cacti, and grasses.

Pronghorn in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Their natural range extended from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Today pronghorns are mainly found in the United States in the Great Plains, Wyoming, Montana, northeast California, southeast Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico and in Canada in southern Alberta. Some of the highest numbers of pronghorn are in Wyoming in the Red Desert and Yellowstone ecosystems. Pronghorn like open plains, fields, grasslands, brush, deserts, and basins. Between the summer and winter, pronghorn migrate between feeding grounds to survive the harsh winter.

INSIDER TIP: On a clear day, you will be able to spot pronghorn in herds along the highway. However, with their light-brown coloring, they blend very easily with the landscape.

Bison in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2 of 5: Bison or American Buffalo

WHERE: Custer State Park, South Dakota; Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota; Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming; National Bison Range, Montana; Elk Island National Park, Alberta

Custer State Park is South Dakota’s first and largest state park. It spans over 71,000 acres all around the Black Hills area. Custer State Park is also home to one of the largest bison herds in North America and is the best place to spot these animals outside of Yellowstone National Park.

Bison in Elk Island National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Through the early 1700s and1800s, bison were hunted to near extinction by the white settlers. But over the past century, bison reintroduction programs—like the one in Custer State Park—have paid off. Now the herd in the park is around 1,300-1,400 strong and they are visible all year round. But springtime is super special because it brings cute baby bison into the mix. The annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup (September 23-25 in 2021) is a popular event. Watch cowboys and cowgirls as they round up and drive the herd.

Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

INSIDER TIP: The number of bison at Elk Island National Park fluctuates year-to-year; there are generally around 400 plains bison and 300 wood bison.

Prairie dog in Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3 of 5: Prairie Dogs

WHERE: Badlands National Park, South Dakota; Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota; Greycliff Prairie Dog Town State Park, Montana

Prairie dogs are closely related to the common ground squirrels and chipmunks both of which live in areas around Badlands National Park and the Great Plains of the West. The prairie dog species found in the Badlands is the black-tailed prairie dog which also happens to be the most common prairie dog species overall. Prairie dogs tend to be around 14-17 inches in length and weigh 1-3 pounds each. Some of their bodily adaptations have made them excellent at what they do. Their short, strong arms and long-nailed toes help them to dig burrows. Although their legs are short, prairie dogs can run up to 35 mph at short distances to escape predators for the safety of their burrows.

Prairie dog in Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prairie dogs live in underground colonies sometimes referred to as “towns”. Prairie dogs build their homes underground to protect against larger predators like hawks and coyotes as well as to protect their homes from flash flooding. One unique aspect of prairie dog life is communication. You can often hear them “talking” to each other via barks, squeaks, or yips. They use this method of communication to warn each other about the dangers and predators around.

INSIDER TIP: Because prairie dogs are so small compared to some of the larger animals in the area, they tend to get overlooked easily. Your best bet is to pull over onto one of the shoulder outlooks and just watch the landscape for any movement in the burrows.

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4 of 5: Sandhill Cranes

WHERE: Bosque National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico; Whitewater Draw, Arizona; Lodi, California; Platte River, Nebraska

Those of us who have experienced any kind of animal migration event know it is an experience of a lifetime. While Nebraska might not seem a likely place to see a migration event, it is home to one of the most epic bird migrations on the continent. And sitting in a bird blind with small cutout windows with just enough space for binoculars and cameras is the best way to watch the majestic sandhill cranes during their annual migration. These cranes can be found by the millions along the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska.

Sandhill cranes at Bosque National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the day, thousands of birds forage for food in the cornfields around Gibbon and at night they roost along the Platter River. Cranes are elegant in the way they dance among each other. And the moment they take flight in unison is simply breathtaking. Once you have experienced this, you might find yourself making the annual trip to Gibbon just to see them again.

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

INSIDER TIP: The best place to see sandhill cranes along their migration route is along the Platte River about 20 miles east of Kearney, Nebraska along I-80. And the best time to visit is March to Mid-April during sunrise or just before sunset.

Manatee at Manatee Park, Tampa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5 of 5:  Manatees

WHERE: Along the Florida Coast

Manatees are one of the most popular marine life attractions in Florida and people travel from all over the world to see them in the wild. Known as gentle sea cows, manatees roam the waters of Florida from April through October. And when the temperature drops, they head to places with fresh water where temperatures are constant year-round. Manatees need waters of around 70 degrees to survive (and thrive).

Homosassa Wildlife State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Citrus County which is along Florida’s Gulf Coast north of Tampa is the world’s largest natural winter refuge for manatees. Manatees are attracted to the area because of the abundance of freshwater springs. Citrus County has many observation points to safely see these animals and it is also one of the few locations in Florida where you can legally observe manatees within the water. So, swimming with manatees is a popular activity here.

Homosassa Wildlife State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

INSIDER TIP: The manatee is one of Florida’s most iconic symbols and wintertime is the best time to see them. When the temperatures dip, manatees gather in springs and the warm-water outflows of power plants in large numbers.

Worth Pondering…

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

—Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)

Spotlight on New Mexico: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

New Mexico is a truly unique place with gorgeous landscapes ranging from white sand deserts to snow topped mountains

D. H. Lawrence, writing in 1928, pretty much summed it up: “The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul.”

The Land of Enchantment, the state motto of New Mexico, is certainly an apt description of a state with diverse landscape and population. This is a state in which the air is crisp, the water fresh, and the people warm and friendly. 

There isn’t a single amazing thing about New Mexico. There are about ten zillion. So start poking around and figure out what to put at the top of your list.

Plaza of Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe

Santa Fe is one of the top destinations in the American Southwest. A city that embraces its natural environment, Santa Fe is a city whose beautiful adobe architecture blends with the high desert landscape. A city that is, at the same time, one of America’s great art and culinary capitals. Santa Fe draws those who love art, natural beauty, and those who wish to relax.

As the heart of the city and the place where Santa Fe was founded, the Plaza is the city’s most historic area. Surrounded by museums, historic buildings, restaurants, hotels, galleries, and endless shopping, the Plaza is the place to start understanding Santa Fe.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park

Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The area was once part of the Permian Sea where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind. Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking—and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petroglyph National Monument 

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. These images are a valuable record of cultural expression and hold profound spiritual significance for contemporary Native Americans.

Main Street Downtown Las Cruces © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Las Cruces

Las Cruces, the second largest city in New Mexico, offers museums, theaters, historical sites, wonderful food, golf courses, bird watching, hiking, and gracious hospitality. Located in southern New Mexico less than an hour from the Texas border, Las Cruces enjoys warm weather and 320 days of sunshine per year. Las Cruces offers visitors a wide range of outdoor activities such as golfing, biking, hiking, and tennis, as well as a diverse assortment of museums, shopping, and festivals.  The weekly Farmers & Crafts Market has been rated one of the best outdoor markets in the U.S. Held every Saturday and Wednesday mornings on Main Street in downtown Las Cruces, the market has over 300 vendors who gather to offer fresh local produce, honey, herbs, spices, arts and crafts and much more.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Morro National Monument

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country. At the base of the bluff—often called Inscription Rock—on sheltered smooth slabs of stone, are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1939 to protect migrating waterfowl, Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 350 species of birds. Tens of thousands of snow geese and sandhill crane winter in the refuge as well as Ross’s Geese and many species of duck. Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge host a Festival of the Cranes in November (weekend before Thanksgiving) that includes events, classes, and even a photography contest. A 12-mile auto tour and numerous hiking trails are the primary means of exploring the refuge.

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesilla

Step back in time and visit Old Mesilla, one of the oldest and most unique settlements of southern New Mexico. Pancho Villa and Billy the Kid walked the streets. The famous trial of Billy the Kid was held here. Today Mesilla is a part of living history. Great care has been given to preserve the original adobe buildings and the beautiful plaza. People from all over the world stop to experience the history, art, architecture, quaint shopping, and unique dining that Mesilla has to offer.

Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park

Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park is a beautiful refuge 1.5 miles from historic Mesilla. Over 900 acres of land including Rio Grande wetlands and part of the Chihuahuan Desert with an education building for nature study. Visitors have opportunity to view wildlife in natural surroundings while strolling one of the self-guided nature trails. Mesilla Valley Bosque is an Audubon designated IBA (Important Birding Area).

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations. In the area known as Chain of Craters, 30 cinder cones can be found across the landscape. La Ventana Natural Arch is easily accessible. Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Located where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Southern Plains, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of the more biologically significant wetland areas of the Pecos River watershed system.  Established in 1937 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds, the refuge plays a crucial role in the conservation of wetlands in the desert. More than 100 species of dragonflies and damselflies (Odonates) have been documented on the Refuge.

Along the Camino Real © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Camino Real

In 1598, Don Juan de Onate led 500 colonists through the remote and unfamiliar country now known as New Mexico. The route Onate followed became El Camino Real, “the royal road.” 

The byway begins just north of Las Cruces, in Fort Selden, built in the mid-1800s to protect local settlers and travelers on El Camino Real and continues to cross 90 miles of flat but waterless and dangerous desert, the Jornada del Muerto (“journey of the dead man”) before reaching Socorro. The road then heads north to Albuquerque and Santa Fe reaching its end at San Juan Pueblo, the first capital of New Mexico and the end of Don Juan de Onate’s journey. 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Just two trails (and an elevator) exist for hikers hoping to explore Carlsbad Caverns on their own. The Big Room Trail, the largest single chamber by volume in North America can be accessed via a 1.25-mile trail or a .6-mile shortcut. The relatively flat terrain weaves through a series of curious hanging stalactites and passes through park gems like the Hall of Giants, Bottomless Pit, and Crystal Spring Dome.

Elephant Butte Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Butte Lake State Park

Elephant Butte Lake State Park is just over an hour north of Las Cruces bordering the Rio Grande. As New Mexico’s largest state park, there are plenty of outdoor activities for everyone. Fishing, boating, kayaking, and jet skiing are all commonplace at Elephant Butte Lake. For less water-based activities you can enjoy the 15 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails around the lake. Camping is allowed, including along the beach.

Roswell UFO Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roswell

Roswell is a great trip if you want that out-of-this-world vacation without the hassle of kitting out your RV for spaceflight every time you want to leave the Milky Way Galaxy. This desert town promises a unique getaway unlike any other—on this planet, at least. The city had been around since the mid-19th century, but it only got its claim to fame in 1947 when a UFO allegedly crash-landed nearby in what became known as the “Roswell Incident.” While the truth is still out there the town has embraced its notoriety with enthusiasm from the one-of-a-kind UFO-centric McDonald’s to alien-themed playgrounds and buses. And if you’re not into exploring the outer limits, you’re still in luck here. The town also boasts a thriving arts scene, beautiful nature areas, and deep ties to the history of the Wild West. 

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

The Mind-Blowing Enchantment of New Mexico: San Antonio & Bosque del Apache

Most enchanting places in New Mexico for your bucket list

The Land of Enchantment, the state motto of New Mexico, is certainly an apt description of a state with diverse landscape and population. This is a state in which the air is crisp, the water fresh, and the people warm and friendly. 

Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We begin in New Mexico’s largest city, Albuquerque. Albuquerque and its suburbs have a vibrant, growing population just shy of one million residents. It is a sprawling, picturesque city, with the stunning Sandia Mountains constraining it on the east, Petroglyph National Monument to the west and the Rio Grande River meandering through its center. 

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is an annual event held in early October. This nine day celebration hosts over 500 balloons each year and is the largest hot air balloon festival in the world.

Plaza de Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Journey 50 miles north and you arrive in Santa Fe, a world renowned city with shops, historic churches, art galleries, restaurants, and inns. Well known for its artists, cowboys, and Native American influence, Santa Fe is a melting pot of culture and ideas.

Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The commuter rail system, the Rail Runner Express offers a convenient, comfortable, and affordable excursion from Albuquerque to Santa Fe.
Today’s journey takes us in the opposite direction. We’ll drive our motorhome about 100 miles south via I-25 to our first stop in the quaint little town of San Antonio, New Mexico. 

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On Christmas day in 1887, this little hamlet in southern New Mexico was the birth place of its most noteworthy resident, the legendary hotelier, Conrad Hilton. Along with his brothers and sisters, Conrad grew up helping his father in the five-room hotel where rates were $1 per day. Their first Hilton Hotel burned to the ground with only the grand mahogany bar spared from the devastation.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, this original mahogany antique can be seen in the Owl Bar and Café in San Antonio. This historic café vies with its neighbor, the Buckhorn Bar, for the “best green chili cheeseburger in the world.”

The Owl is an interesting place to stop for lunch. Walk in the door and you’ll step back into time. Your eyes are first drawn to Hilton’s original bar and then to the walls packed with memorabilia and collectable décor distinctly southwestern.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can’t help but note the dollar bills covering the restaurant’s walls. This is an Owl tradition which encourages visitors to write messages, or their names on dollar bills, then find an available space and tack them up. The cash is gathered annually and given to charity. Over the years, patrons have donated over $20,000.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Antonio is gateway to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a ten minute drive south on SR-1S. Bosque del Apache stands out as one of the country’s most accessible and popular national wildlife preserves providing a seasonal home, November through March, for up to 12,000 sandhill cranes, 32,000 snow geese, nearly 40,000 ducks.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The visitor center is staffed with friendly, knowledgeable volunteers who provide maps and firsthand information on what’s happening at the refuge. Displays introduce you to much of the wildlife that call the refuge home. The gift and nature store offers field guides and gifts to make your visit enlightened and memorable.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to reserve time for the twelve-mile auto loop through the refuge. This loop is divided into north and south halves. Time spent will depend on how often and how long you stop at the many viewing areas. The south loop has more deep water ponds, which draw an abundance of diving birds. Both loops afford you opportunity to spot a wide array of wildlife.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The enchantment of New Mexico and many critters of the Bosque can be enjoyed any time of year. However, if your visit is from October through March, be sure to take warm clothes as the temperatures can blend with the New Mexico winds to drive a chill straight to the bone.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And there’s no better time or way to appreciate all that the 57,000-acre refuge has to offer than attending the annual Festival of the Cranes, a virtual event in 2020 (November 19-21). Registration required. It’s a glorious pageant of nature celebrating the annual migration of birds as they head south for the winter.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Kiva RV Park and Horse Motel (Bernardo); Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park (San Antonio)

Note: Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park closed for several years but has reopened under the same management.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

8 Ways Wildlife Refuges Make Life Better

Rediscover your nature at a national wildlife refuge

We know COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is impacting RV travel plans right now. For a little inspiration we’ll continue to share stories from our favorite places so you can keep daydreaming about your next adventure.

Our lives are brighter because of national wildlife refuges. Even people who’ve never set foot on a refuge benefit from these lands and waters conserved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How could that be? Come along for a look.

Here are some key ways national wildlife refuges improve the lives of everyday folks.

1. Health

SAbine National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We are hard-wired to need contact with nature. A large body of research shows that getting outdoors—on national wildlife refuges, for example—can improve peace of mind and physical well-being. Many refuges reinforce that health-and-nature connection by hosting family walks, runs, bike tours, even special events, to get people moving outdoors. 

2. World-Class Recreation

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Millions of people enjoy outdoor recreation each year on national wildlife refuges—where they are excited to spot wildlife while they refresh their minds and bodies. Some visitors enjoy birding, hiking, paddling, wildlife viewing, or nature photography. All these activities offer people a chance to unplug from the stresses of modern life and reconnect with their natural surroundings.

3. Wildlife Conservation

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National wildlife refuges are dedicated to conserving America’s rich fish and wildlife heritage. Just five decades ago, bald eagles, alligators, grizzly bears, California condors, Louisiana black bears, and whooping cranes all were at risk of extinction. Refuges have helped—and continue to help—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service save iconic American species (and many lesser-known ones) by providing healthy habitat on which they depend. For example, Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge supports American alligators.

4. Storm Resilience

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National wildlife refuges help to lessen the impact of natural disasters on local communities. More than 150 coastal refuges buffer cities and towns from storm surges. For example, during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, wetlands at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge blunted the saltwater surge toward North America’s largest petrochemical refinery complex near Houston.

5. Access to Green Space

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With four-fifths of Americans living in cities or suburbs, access to green space isn’t a given. Fortunately, there is a wildlife refuge within an hour’s drive of most major cities.

6. Reduced Fire Risk to Communities

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Refuges help reduce risks from catastrophic wildfires. Refuge fire managers routinely burn, cut, or chemically treat overgrown brush, trees, and logging debris that can fuel wildfires. On Florida’s Merritt Island, home to the Kennedy Space Center as well as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, refuge managers work to lower the risk of fire.

7. Biodiversity

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Think of nature as a web, with each part depending on another. Take one part away, and other parts suffer. Biodiversity is “the variety of living things in a given place—whether a small stream, an extensive desert, all the forests in the world, the oceans, or the entire planet.” Refuges encourage biodiversity. Among the most biodiverse refuges are Santa Ana, Lower Rio Grande Valley, and Laguna Atascosa. Their south Texas counties contain 1,200 plant species, 300 butterflies, and 700 vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish).

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Economic Benefits

National wildlife refuges add to the nation’s economic well-being. For every $1 Congress appropriates to run the Refuge System, wildlife refuges generate nearly $5 in local economies through visits for recreation. In fiscal year 2017, recreational spending by 53 million visitors to national wildlife refuges helped generate about $3 billion in economic activity and support 43,000 jobs.   

Lower Swanee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

Banking on Nature: Record Numbers Visit National Wildlife Refuges

A record number of more than 53 million people visited America’s national wildlife refuges

53.6 million people visited national wildlife refuges during fiscal year 2017 (2017-2018) which had an economic impact of $3.2 billion on local communities and supported more than 41,000 jobs. The figures come from a new economic report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service titled Banking on Nature. The report is the sixth in a series of studies since 1997 that measure the economic contributions of national wildlife refuge recreational visits to local economies.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Wildlife Refuge System is a network of 567 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts located in all 50 states and five U.S. territories. There is a national wildlife refuge within an hour’s drive of most major metropolitan areas, and national wildlife refuges provide vital habitats for thousands of species and access to world-class recreation, including birding, photography, and environmental education.

The report contains economic case studies of 162 national wildlife refuges and other information. Following is information relating to four of these refuges.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge supports one of the most diverse and unique assemblages of habitat and wildlife within the Southwest. The 57,331-acre refuge is located south of Socorro at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Eleven miles of the Rio Grande bisects the Refuge. The extraordinary diversity and concentration of wildlife in a desert environment draws people from around the world to observe and photograph wildlife. A comprehensive visitor services program provides opportunities for people to connect with nature and enjoy the American great outdoors.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 306,000 recreational visits in 2017 which contributed to the economic effect of the Refuge. During October through May, the Refuge conducts interpretive van tours and interpretive hikes for the general public and also offers over 100 interpretive programs during the annual Festival of the Cranes held annually the week before Thanksgiving (37th annual Festival of the Cranes is November 20-23, 2019).

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitor recreation expenditures were $15.8 million with non-residents accounting for $15.5 million or 98 percent of total expenditures.

Green jay at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is located at the southern tip of Texas next to the Gulf of Mexico. Wildlife finds a haven within the refuge, the largest federally protected habitat remaining in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Subtropical forests, coastal prairies, freshwater wetlands, and a barrier island support a mix of wildlife found nowhere else in the world. Laguna Atascosa has recorded an impressive 410 species of birds drawing birders from around the world. Several tropical species reach their northernmost range in south Texas as the Central and Mississippi Flyways converge here.

Curved bill thrasher at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 485,000 recreational visits in 2017. Interpretation activities include bird tours, bird walks, and habitat tram tours. Visitor recreation expenditures were $30.0 million with non-residents accounting for $23.0 million or 77 percent of total expenditures.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 to preserve the unique qualities of the Okefenokee Swamp. The Okefenokee is the largest refuge in the east and includes over 407,000 acres. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has many designations including being a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance, National Water Trail, National Recreation Trail, an Important Bird Area, and is a proposed World Heritage Site.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Okefenokee is considered the largest intact freshwater wetland in North America. The Refuge is made up of a variety of habitats, and includes over 40,000 acres of pine uplands that are managed for longleaf pine around the swamp perimeter and on interior islands. Other habitats include open prairies, forested wetlands, scrub shrub, and open water (lakes). The Refuge has three primary entrances and two secondary entrances for visitor access.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 724,000 recreational visits in 2017. Visitor recreation expenditures were $64.7 million with non-residents accounting for $59.8 million or 93 percent of total expenditures.

Plain chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge consists of 2,088 acres along the banks of the Rio Grande, south of Alamo in the Lower Rio Grande Valley where subtropical, Gulf coast, Great Plains, and Chihuahuan desert converge. There are over 400 species of birds, 300 species of butterflies, and 450 types of plants. The refuge was established in 1943 for the protection of migratory birds and is a great place to visit for birding and draws in people from all to look for birds like the Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Green Jay, and Altamira Orioles.

Great kiskadee at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 12 miles of trails, visitor center, suspension bridge, and 40 foot tower for visitors to explore. Year-round educational programs, seasonal tram, and birding tours, special events, summer programs and more that are offered to the public.

Green heron at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 196,000 recreational visits in 2017 which contributed to the economic effect of the Refuge. Visitor recreation expenditures were $2.2 million with non-residents accounting for $1.3 million or 58 percent of total expenditures.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare

A Great Migration: Bosque del Apache

The sound of the sandhill cranes and the scent of roasting green chile herald the arrival of autumn in the Rio Grande valley

It was a frigid November morning at New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge where we had joined dozens of ardent wildlife photographers and nature enthusiasts, lined up tripod-to-tripod and scope to scope, ready and waiting for the action to begin.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We were standing on an observation platform called Flight Deck overlooking a network of fields and marshes teeming with thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese that pause here to feed and rest during their annual migration south.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Talk about a great migration! Every year starting in early November, some 10-15,000 sandhill cranes, 20-30,000 snow geese, nearly 40,000 ducks, and even a few hawks and bald eagles migrate to the Bosque del Apache. This annual event also attracts birders, photographers, and nature lovers of all kinds who also migrate to the Bosque to enjoy this spectacle of nature.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated on the Rio Grande just a few miles off Interstate 25 south of Socorro (between Albuquerque and Las Cruces) in the tiny town of San Antonio, the 57,000-acre refuge was established in the 1930s to protect the sandhill crane. The majestic 4-foot-tall crane had nearly vanished along the Intermountain West Corridor, a vital north-south flyway for migratory waterfowl and many other birds.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For instinctive reasons known only to the birds, a sunrise “fly out” en masse is a daily routine. As is a “fly in” at sunset when the flocks return to the shallow marshes after a day of feeding on corn and grain crops farmed on more than 1,300 acres, mostly at the northern end of the refuge.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“They could go any minute now,” said the photographer next to us. An amateur wildlife photographer, here as a member of a photo tour group. “They take off all at once…thousands of them,” he adds, “and it’s really unbelievable.”

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we watched and waited, the sun inched over the eastern horizon illuminating a wispy fog rising from the marsh several hundred feet away. Then, without any discernible signal, it happened. In virtual unison thousands of snow geese erupted in a thunder of wings, and in a blur filled the sky as they flew low over head before soaring northward to spend the day feeding in the fields.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sandhill cranes then started to walk. Others lowered their heads, long necks stretched out in front of them, almost off-balance. This signal is followed by quick steps, the awkward first wing flaps and flight.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s unbelievable how they take off all at once, thousands of them. Nothing we’ve ever seen in nature compares to it. It is the rare human who is not stirred to awe and excitement as thousands of birds soar scarcely 20 feet overhead.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then in the late afternoon they streak the sky and return to the water to roost for the night. The afternoon fly-in is almost as enjoyable to observe as the morning fly-out.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The spectacular sunrise had also made us forget for a time the freezing chill as we retreated to the warmth of our toad.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once warmed up, we drove the 15-mile one-way auto loop road and hiked the trails and observed large groups of snow geese and cranes, thousands of ducks of many varieties, hundreds of Canada geese, dozens of hawks, eagles, blackbirds, crows, roadrunners, sparrows, grebes, coots, and other birds along with occasional reptiles, amphibians and mammals, such as mule deer, coyotes, and jackrabbits.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The refuge’s dirt roads are well maintained and RVs should have no trouble driving on them. If 15 miles sounds too long, you can cut your tour short by taking a two-way cutoff and driving on one section—the 7-mile Marsh Loop or the 7.5-mile Farm Loop.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is open year-round from one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset. The one-day entry fee is $5 per vehicle including all occupants; an annual pass is $25. Golden Age and other federal passes are accepted.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The refuge hosts a number of special events, including the annual Festival of the Cranes, staged during the height of the fall migration. The 32nd annual Festival of the Cranes is set for November 20-23, 2019. It’s a glorious pageant of nature celebrating the annual migration of birds as they head south for the winter.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Kiva RV Park and Horse Motel (Bernardo); Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park (San Antonio)

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt