From Weapons to Wildlife
Suburbia, sports parks and traffic surround the 17,000 acres of Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. The land has been transformed several times in the last 150 years. The short grass prairie inhabited by Plains Indians became family farms for Western settlers at the end of the nineteenth century. With the coming of World War II the farms were purchased by the government for a chemical weapons manufacturing facility. Post war, Shell Chemical Company produced pesticides and herbicides. Production halted in 1982 with environment cleanup starting five years later.
In 1986 a communal roost of bald eagles was discovered. Public interest triggered a successful grassroots effort to have the Arsenal declared a National Wildlife Refuge in 1992. A large prairie restoration project is returning the land to a more natural state. Prairie, woodlands and wetlands support habitat a wide array of wildlife – birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Bald eagles and American Bison have a protector home on the plains within sight of downtown Denver.
“Wild Rides” provide the best opportunity to view and learn about the refuge inhabitants. Led by sharp-eyed and knowledgeable volunteer guides visitors ride a bus to areas normally not open to the public. We joined a tour led by Dennis aboard the brand new, heated and air conditioned bus. Returning visitors will especially appreciate the comfortable padded seats in lieu of the wooden ones on the trolley. I can’t imagine touring the refuge without seeing prairie dogs, a large number of black tailed prairie dogs scurry from burrow to burrow in colonies scattered throughout the grounds.
Ascending the dam at Lake Ladora we watch as hundreds of Canada geese coast in for a water landing. A male and female mallard waddle off an ice island for a swim. Literally thousands of geese are on the lake, ice and bank this morning. The driver spots the rack of a mule deer and stops to that we can focus our binoculars. Just above the blue grama prairie grass we watch a Northern Harrier (hawk) hunt for prey. His flight is beauty in motion. Hawks drift on currents about bare-limbed cottonwoods.
Majestically watching the scene from a treetop the white head of a bald eagle turns. Lower in the same tree sits a white-speckled immature eagle. Dennis relates that the white head feathers don’t appear until the eagle is about 5-year-old and ready to mate. Further along we see the massive nest of the one resident nesting pair at the refuge. They stay year-round will the others will leave in a few weeks to head north to their breeding grounds. Eagles mate for life and return to the same nest yearly. Nests lined with twigs, mosses, grasses and feathers can reach as much as 2,000 pounds as they are enlarged each year.
Two raccoons dart along a canal bank. Ahead, mule deer stand across the road and on both sides carefully watching the bus. The eight males move off a short distance to a meadow . We learn that the bounding motion of mule deer is called stotting. Miles away a herd of females rest in a ticket of New Mexico locust trees. It seems today is guys day out.
Our last stop is near the bison enclosure. A herd of eighteen from the National Bison Range in Montana where reintroduced to the refuge in 2006 along with a pair from North Dakota. Successful reproduction has increased the herd yearly.
Tours are not up-close and personal with the wildlife; after all we are only observers in this natural refuge. Back at the Visitor Center artfully displayed exhibits gives us the opportunity to observe details. In the Discovery Room visitors watch workers in the Bee Tree. It’s a warm day out so the hive is active. I’m fascinated by observing how the bees stay to the right as they travel through the plastic tube from hive to out-of-doors. We can only wish humans were so well trained.
We need to return to the refuge in each season since many species are migratory. For instance in summer whie pelicans will dot the lake populated with geese today. Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge has become a home for deer, bison and eagles to stay and play.
When You Go: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is open from 7 am – 5 pm, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Visitor Center open form 7:30am – 4 pm. Two-hour “Wild Ride” tours begin a 10am, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tours are free but reservations are required. For more information or reservations call 303-289-0930. Free nature programs (some specially for children) are presented throughout the year; space is limited and reservations required.
The public is welcome to hike the 8.7-mile trail system when the refuge is open. Catch and release fishing in season from April 15 – October 13, 2009 with Colorado fishing license and a $3/day recreational fishing fee. Check the website for announcements and details of special events.