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Havens for Wildlife

Working together is the key to conserving this nation's abundance of fish and wildlife species as we move toward the 21st century. As part of this approach, the Fish and Wildlife Service is reaching out to form new partnerships with farmers and ranchers, state and federal agencies, Native American tribes, corporations, conservation groups, and citizen volunteers. This new movement evolved because of the growing belief that we cannot conserve this country's rich natural heritage in the long term by protecting only individual species, parcels of land, or other pieces of an ecosystem. Today, the Fish and Wildlife Service is putting more emphasis on understanding how the parts of an ecosystem interrelate and affect long-term conservation of natural resources. Some of these ecosystems can be found in National Wildlife Refuges.

Flying geese

Always on the outlook for photographic opportunities, Richard and I traveled recently to two of Minnesota's larger refuges: Rice Lake and Agassiz. Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge is found in northwestern Minnesota, close to the Canadian border. As you drive into the area, the first thing you notice is the continuous expanse of wetlands. Similar to the bayous of Louisiana, this 61,000 acre refuge is a paradise for waterfowl and other wildlife. As we got out of the car, a skein of geese cut across the open sky, waltzing to a silent melody. There are over 250 pairs of Canada geese nesting at Agassiz. All day I would be comforted by their presence, their wings rising and falling in an unbroken rhythm, drumming against the autumn sky.

Island Lake

We continue to travel through the refuge, and I find the abundance of water staggering . Nineteen pools exist here that range in size from 100 to 10,000 acres. Only a person lost in the desert could conjure such images. Agassiz is a vital link for waterfowl in the chain of National Wildlife Refuges in the Mississippi Flyway. Refuges dot the map along the four major "flyways" that waterfowl follow from their northern nesting grounds to southern wintering areas. As Richard stops to photograph a flock of Coots, I study the vegetation. Cattail seems to be the dominant plant in the wetlands. Although bulrush, duckweed ,and spike rush make up a hearty second. Looking outward , the water literally mirrors the cerulean sky. The bird list at the refuge includes 280 species, with 49 species of mammals, 9 species of reptiles ,and 12 species of amphibians. One of the latter has come up out of the sedges and attempts to cross the road. I pick up the black and yellow salamander and give him a free ride to the other side. His body is as cold as ice.Tiger Salamander

Later, as we get back into the car near the ranger's station, a yearling deer walks out to investigate. She's dressed in her autumn coat of tawny brown and is not the least bit shy. She comes so close that we believe she must be a favorite of the park rangers.

In October we take a trip to the Rice Lake National Refuge. It's an overcast day, and Man-of-war clouds take wing on the backs of 50 geese, honking high in the afternoon sky. As we head out on the trails, the geese are everywhere...winging in, winging out...their wild cries theme music for this Indian Summer outing. We hide in the brush near Mandy Lake and wait to see what might swim by. More Coots, and then finally a pair of wood ducks. As Richard discreetly fires his camera, I watch as the female seems to make all the navigational decisions. She can't see Richard and probably can't hear him either, but instinct tells her to move away. She finally does, and the male follows obediently. It will be fifteen minutes before another dares to venture out with the male in tow.

A pair of Wood Ducks

All the while I listen to the scurry of smaller creatures in the leaf-carpeted forest. Squirrels make the most noise. They're too busy burying acorns to be concerned with keeping quiet. Chipmunks are more cautious. They don't want to get caught stealing the squirrels' cache. I move my foot, look down, and see a frog. So far the October weather has been mild. It may explain why the amphibians are still moving about. Richard joins me and we crouch to admire the frog's olive coloring against the fallen leaves. What gentle creatures frogs are. They spend all their days tending to their business with a serenity and benevolence we humans can only hope to achieve.

Leopard Frog

We're at the end of the trail and circle back to where we've parked the car. Ninety percent of the season's foliage has surrendered stiffly to the cold, but we happen upon a rose hip that has managed to escape. It's candy-apple red shines in defiance...a gem among the brittle fronds. Back in the car we just sit a while with the windows down. The tamaracks across the water seem to shimmer under the darkening sky. We listen as geese fly overhead, and hear the cry of a great blue heron. It starts to rain but we're in no hurry to move. We seem to be the only humans in the entire refuge.

Glancing at my refuge material I find some interesting statistics. In the last five years about 115 million people in this country enjoyed some form of wildlife recreation. 14 million hunted. 36 million fished. 76 million observed and photographed wildlife. I smile to myself in the dark. We just might get our priorities right after all.Twin Lake

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Copyright ©1996
Judi Schiller, Richard Schiller

December 23, 1996