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IN DEPTH: Necedah wildlife refuge looks to continue to adapt and grow

August 29, 2018

For nearly 80 years, the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge has stood as a sanctuary of wildlife conservation in central Wisconsin.

The refuge was established in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a breeding ground for migratory birds and other species of wildlife. In the decades since its founding, the 44,000-acre refuge continued to carry out this initial mission, while also expanding to provide community members with services and connections to the natural world.

Activities such as hiking, hunting, fishing, birding and berry picking are all available to the public, along with a slew of educational programs. According to Katie Goodwin, the refuge’s visitor services manager and volunteer coordinator, the refuge’s visitor center typically receives somewhere between 11,000 and 14,000 visitors per year, while the refuge as a whole usually averages around 170,000 visitors annually. Since the start of last October, the refuge has received 190,000 visitors.

The current visitor center is a 12,000-square foot facility featuring green technology such as solar panels and geothermal wells. Goodwin notes that the visitor center, opened in 2011, provides community members unfamiliar with the reserve with an opportunity to dive in.

“This is kind of the jumping-off point for the community,” Goodwin said. “When the building’s open, we have everything from just drop-in visitors — they can talk to naturalists, they can talk to volunteers — to field trips that we schedule — group presentations and hikes we schedule with larger groups.”

Over the years, the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge has been the site for several successful reintroductions of bird species, including Canada geese, trumpeter swans, wild turkeys and, most famously, whooping cranes.

Since being introduced in 2001, the migratory flock of whooping cranes, a species that once teetered on the brink of extinction, at the Necedah refuge has grown to around 100 birds. Given the scarcity of whooping cranes across the country, the refuge is a popular destination for many birders.

“Lots of folks come from all over the community, as well as all over the nation, to go birding. Particularly, the whooping cranes are a really big draw,” said Brad Strobel, the refuge’s resident wildlife biologist. “Lots of people come to see the whooping cranes. It’s one of only a few places in the U.S. where you can see whooping cranes.”

Like all of the country’s over 560 protected areas designated as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge is overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which itself is an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior.

As an entity under a federal government agency, the wildlife refuge can be at the mercy of budgetary constraints and considerations that come down from Congress. This means refuge staffers often need to get creative in order to conduct their everyday business and continue to grow.

“It’s one of those things where if we had more money, we could do more things — we could do more good on the ground, we could hire more people to help do more surveys for whooping cranes or Karner blue butterflies or the other endangered species that we’ve got,” Strobel said. “But you don’t always have what you want, so we end up being creative a lot of times. We use a lot of volunteers. A lot of work we do with whooping cranes we do through graduate schools.”

Volunteer work is especially vital for the refuge.

Assistant refuge manager Leann Wilkins credits members of the group the Friends of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, who assist in the upkeep and expansion of refuge facilities and services.

“I think one thing we’ve been really successful with is we partner with our non-profit organization the Friends of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge,” Wilkins said. “They often assist us to keep (the visitor center) as grand as it is, but also improve other facilities that are available for visitors to use.”

The Friends of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge groups totals over 230 members internationally, including roughly 80 or so members from surrounding communities who actively assist on the wildlife refuge.

“Staff ebbs and flows. People can come and go. They get news jobs and then we get new people in. But the friends (group) is one of our constants,” Goodwin said. “They help with environmental education, they help with biology out in the field, they do our fundraising, they are the ones who talk to Congressional (members) about things that we need. Having them here and having that active support of all the communities around us has been really great.”

One of the big challenges facing the group and thus the wildlife refuge as a whole is bringing in younger members to pick up some of the slack when some of the current membership is no longer able.

“Most of (the members of the friends group) are retired. We have some that are getting close to retirement that are still kind of active. We have a few younger families that are also in the group, which is really nice,” Goodwin said. “They’re always looking at ways to involve younger participants because the median age is starting to get over 70, and I know they have some concerns. They’re trying to find some younger people to take over those roles and responsibilities.”

The refuge also tries to collaborate with other local nature and education centers, including the Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center near Wisconsin Dells. This collaboration includes working together on training sessions and even occasionally sharing interns.

For its part, the Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center, an over 300-acre environmental education center operated by the University of Wisconsin–Extension, has seen growth in recent years and looks to continue to expand its outreach as well.

“Over the last five years, we’ve grown 26 percent in the number of people that we reach,” said Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center Director Justin Hougham. “On one hand, there have certainly been some challenges in the last five years, whether it’s different types of programs being scaled back or schools maybe not having the time or availability to come to our program like they had. But we’ve worked really hard to keep that door open to them as well as find new ways to reach new people.”

With visitor numbers up by over 20,000 over the past year, positive signs are there for the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge too. The opening of the new visitor center over seven years ago opened the door for expanded community outreach opportunities, and the refuge’s staff and volunteers will continue to look to capitalize as they navigate the various challenges and constraints that pop up every year.

“Being a community resource was one of our goals, but then another one was really to do environmental education,” Goodwin said. “Just connect people and give them a sense of this place that they live in and really is theirs, conserving the natural environment and the good that does.”

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