Maryland Wildlife Refuges
"Research Is Our Mission"
No other national wildlife refuge is like it; nor is there another that is comparable to it in the entire world. Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland is unique, to say the least. Established almost 60 years ago, Patuxent has seen several changes in name and a tripling of its original size, but its purpose has remained the same: to support wildlife research.
It is here where the recovery requirements of critically endangered species are studied and the effects of environmental contaminants on wildlife are identified.
The refuge currently supports 43 research studies that utilize the refuge's wide diversity of created habitats. Situated in the east coast megalopolis, which has exploded around it, the refuge is an island of green space midway between the cities of Baltimore, MD, and Washington, DC.
The captive species areas and biological laboratories are not set up for visits by the general public, and so the refuge has gone a step further to acquaint visitors with the work of the wildlife scientists at Patuxent. A state-of-the-art visitor center contains the "Wisdom of Wildness" exhibit hall, where visitors see the results of wildlife research and illustrations of the knotty problems that still threaten habitats and wildlife.
Consisting of an amazing array of lights and sounds, buttons to push, moving scenery, and life-scale replicas, the exhibit hall serves as both an interactive museum and an unforgettable learning experience for both adults and children.
Open every day of the year except Christmas Day, the National Wildlife Visitor Center first opened its doors in October 1994 after 6 years of planning and 127 design team meetings. It attracted 75,000 visitors in its first year of operation, a number that is expected to reach 300,000 in a few years.
The exhibitry alone cost $4 million to create and install. Private funds helped to build the center, which is designed to convey the image of a science center instead of a typical nature center.
Establishing a wildlife research center where teams of scientists could study long-term habitat relationships was an idea pushed by Ira Gabrielson and his boss J.N. "Ding" Darling, who at the time was head of the Bureau of Biological Survey in the Agriculture Department, predecessor agency to the current Fish and Wildlife Service. Gabrielson later succeeded Darling as the first director of FWS.
Their lobbying paid off when in 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred 2760 acres from abandoned farmlands near Laurel, MD, for the Patuxent Research Refuge. The farmlands had been acquired by the federal government during the depression years in the 1930s. Gabrielson helped pick the site, one that also contained many acres of floodplain forests along the Patuxent River.
The research conducted there was to focus on migratory birds, environmental contaminants, and endangered species, the mission that continues to guide the research agenda at the refuge to this day.
Soon after the transfer of land, Gabrielson sought and received the necessary appropriations for building the laboratories and for creating the 25 ponds and wetland areas on the site today.
During the 1970s more land was added to the refuge, and in 1992 another 8100 acres from the nearby U.S. Army Fort Meade was added to bring the size to its present 12,800 acres and a total of 33 impoundments. The transfer from the Army was spearheaded by a group of hunters who did not want the land devoted to urban development.
"From an airplane," says Patuxent manager Sue McMahon, "all of a sudden you see this beautiful green space when you fly over the refuge." She says that it is reportedly the largest block of undeveloped land on the east coast between Boston and North Carolina.
The intact forests and water regime explain why 256 wild bird species have been booked on the refuge, a task that was overseen by Chandler Robbins, one of the world's leading ornithologists and a long-time staff researcher at the refuge,
McMahon jokingly refers to the on-site scientists as her tenants, a reference to the inter-jurisdictional arrangement between FWS and the National Biological Service. While the entire refuge belongs to FWS and the National Wildlife Refuge System, both research and visitor center personnel are former FWS employees who were absorbed by NBS when it was established several years ago.
McMahon says that, when the budget is approved, visitor center staff will return to FWS and the visitor center itself will be transferred from NBS. She says the confusion over names should end now that the unofficial "Patuxent Wildlife Research Center" name has also been scrapped in favor of the original and official title of Patuxent Research Refuge.
Research, Research, And More Research
Almost nothing happens at the refuge without some research angle. Refuge biologist Holliday Obrecht says all of his habitat management is oriented to some research project. That is why the refuge is a mosaic of different created habitats. Obrecht spent 18 years in migratory bird research at Patuxent before entering his current position, so research is a natural for him.
His inquisitiveness led to his own investigation of beaver behavior at a water-control structure he depends on for maintaining appropriate water depths in one impoundment. Beavers insisted on damming his structure making it dysfunctional. "I like to find out how things work," said Obrecht, so he decided to setup a video camera equipped with infra-red film to see how beaver dams get built.
After several failures, he ended up late one night with footage showing the beavers arriving with huge amounts of vegetation and then weaving it into a matrix and carefully stuffing mud between the woven strands. He has learned that, if the sound of running water can be masked, dam construction will cease. Running water sounds, even artificially produced, says Obrecht, will elicit dam-building instincts.
Storm water runoff from parking lots are channeled into created wetlands where researchers examine the resulting behavior of plants and animals. The wildlife researchers are even studying the disposal of the discharge from the new visitor center sewage plant for creating wetlands, using the dissolved nutrients to feed wetland plants and recharging ground water.
Even a high-tension power line was turned into a research exercise when it was located across refuge uplands where the right-of-way could be managed to maintain a shrubby habitat conducive to a wildlife community. This is a project with outstanding success, says Obrecht, and one that should revolutionize power line management practices.
The seasonal wetlands created by another utility as a "mitigation" project are under study by refuge scientists while it serves as an extraordinary wildlife viewing area.
A trip to the Visitor Center could mean a ride on a prototype 60-passenger electric tram, which is also the subject of intensive research. This time, however, it is the Department of Defense and the Electracore company that are doing the study. The $250,000 vehicle was donated to the refuge so that it could be used as a test vehicle to help develop an electric all-terrain design.
Tram tours of refuge habitats will be a regular activity once a crew of paid drivers has been trained and hired. Friends of the Patuxent Refuge, the volunteer fund-rasing arm of the refuge, are administering the tram service and will charge riders a small fee to cover costs.
Manager McMahon could not be happier with the volunteer support the refuge gets from area citizens, a cadre that at times is near 500 persons including members of the Friends organization.
Volunteer workers welcome and orient all visitors at both the Visitor Center and the North Tract Visitor Contact Station, the two entry points to the refuge. Volunteer coordinator Pattie Nagel at the visitor center and outdoor recreation planner Marion Kinlein at the North Tract find the volunteers a vital necessity to accommodate the current 100,000 visitors, let alone the coming increases.
In addition to coordinating volunteer-led nature walks and workshops, the staff is expanding outreach by preparing teachers to lead student field trips at the refuge.
Volunteers like Steve Noyes make clear the value of these unpaid workers. He heard about volunteering from a friend and started on Independence Day in 1992. Now he leads two bird walks a month for 5 months and one a month the rest of the year. An amateur photographer, he is also sorting and cataloging thousands of refuge color slides. Employed full-time, he is eager to retire so he can spend more time at the refuge!
Everyone who realizes the value of wildlife has got to be thankful for the resolve of Gabrielson and Darling, without whom this internationally acclaimed research facility might not exist. The investment has brought about changes of land stewardship practices in the interest of wildlife propagation, turnabouts in the expected losses of several endangered species, proof of the tragic effects of DDT, and the development of new bird population survey methods. Patuxent Research Refuge is also a wildlife sanctuary in the middle of one of the largest population centers. It is an irreplaceable place that urban residents, especially, need for experiencing natural habitats and witnessing the diverse and seasonally changing wildlife sustained by those habitats.
Patuxent Research Led to DDT Ban
Patuxent wildlife researchers have had many successes, but perhaps their greatest achievement was to inform the world of the tragic consequences of using the World War II chemical DDT as a pest control.
In her book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson used Patuxent research data to tell in a dramatic way the consequences of DDT use for bird populations.
The Patuxent scientists began assessing the effects on wildlife at about the time DDT was first put on sale and eventually broke the news that DDT in the food chain of wild birds was the cause of alarming declines in hatching success of bald eagles, peregrine falcons, ospreys, and other birds.
Their eggs, said the researchers, became thin-shelled and broke during incubation because DDT in their diets interfered with calcium production for eggshells.
That cause-and-effect finding came from carefully controlled experiments on captive bird populations at Patuxent and was the stimulus for banning the sale of DDT in the early 1970s.
The eggshell problem is now history. Other pollutants continue to be the subject of research at Patuxent including the impacts of oil spills.
For species that are critically endangered, the researchers will establish captive colonies at Patuxent where their physiology and behavior is closely scrutinized and their young are raised to be sent back to the wild.
Sometimes surrogate species are used so as to avoid any unnecessary impacts on remaining wild populations. Sandhill cranes were substituted for whooping cranes before tested laboratory methods were tried on the dwindling number of whooping cranes. Andean condors are substituted for the rare California condors. Both species are on the increase now.
The researchers have helped to bring back depleted Mississippi sandhill cranes and have studied a number of other species including timber wolves and Kirtand's warblers to learn more about their breeding ecology for application to habitat management.
The third general area of research at Patuxent is the long-term monitoring of migratory birds. Records from a legion of licensed bird banders and the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey are used to detect population trends and to indicate declines that could lead to changes in habitat management methods.
Many of the management practices at national wildlife refuges can be traced to the findings of Patuxent researchers. With the growing impacts of greater human population and the continuing encroachments on wild areas, the pressure for applied wildlife research at Patuxent will likely increase.
Having the availability of an experienced and educated research staff at Patuxent is one more hedge against a silent spring.
From Weaponry to Wetlands
Patuxent Research Refuge manager Sue McMahon was tickled pink to say yes to Baltimore Gas and Electric Company when it asked if the refuge was interested in gaining 23 acres of constructed wetlands. Patuxent researchers were happy, too, because they would get a chance to see whether created wetlands would function like the natural ones do.
Now refuge visitors enjoy the watchable wildlife at three kinds of wetlands, and Patuxent scientists are watching the survival and growth rates of wetland plants.
Located on the North Tract of the refuge, the project includes a 3-acre open pond and 20 acres of seasonal forested wetlands. The pond contains two nesting islands in a cross shape, a design based on Patuxent research to maximize nesting area.
A portion of the seasonal wetlands is called the "green-tree reservoir" because it is manually flooded only from October to April to avoid harm to the trees during the growing season.
The site was chosen because it had the soil and groundwater attributes of a natural wetland that may have existed before the Army built a high-tech firing range on it. The firing range and unexploded munitions had to be removed, but McMahon asked that the control tower remain because its elevation makes an ideal vantage point for wildlife viewing.
Two other overlooks were constructed with soil excavated for the pond. By the time the project was completed in 1994, 6,131 trees, 4,276 shrubs, and 15,102 emergent plants had been planted on the site.
The utility company needed to create wetlands to compensate for the unavoidable loss of a like amount that occurred when the company constructed a major power-grid transmission line. Laws require such "mitigation" projects in an attempt to halt additional losses to the nation's already depleted inventory of wetlands. The project cost the company $2.5 million.
What to Do and How to Get There
Patuxent Research Refuge has two entrances: one at the National Wildlife Visitor Center and another at the refuge North Tract. They are not interconnected.
Plan on at least one hour at the Visitor Center to see the exhibit hall, gift shop, and auditorium presentations. Admission is free, and open hours are from 10:00 to 5:30 daily except Christmas Day.
Redington Lake is just behind the Visitor Center and can be observed from its patio. Cash Lake may be seen from the =-mile Cash Lake Trail that starts at the Visitor Center.
Tours, starting at the Visitor Center, will be offered soon on an electric tram. Passenger tickets will be available in the gift shop.
The North Tract entrance leads to the Visitor Contact Station, wildlife viewing area, Wildlife Loop Drive, and fishing areas. All visitors must register at the contact station and receive access passes after signing a liability waiver. Although injury is unlikely and no one has ever been injured, unexploded munitions could be encountered since the North Tract is part of a former Army post.
Wildlife viewing, birding, photography, fishing, jogging, horseback riding, and bicycling are allowed in selected areas. A number of special programs and nature walks are held throughout the year and are announced in advance. Parts of the loop drive are closed when a pre-existing firing range is in use by law enforcement agencies in accord with the legislation that made the land transfer from the Army to FWS.
Hunting on the North Tract only is permitted during state-declared seasons from September through June. Except for law enforcement, the program is completely administered by the Meade Natural Heritage Association, an organization of hunters who lobbied for refuge-ownership of the property with a view of maintaining the hunting program conducted earlier under Army ownership. Completing a hunter safety course and passing a shooting test are required.
The North Tract opens at 8:00 and closes no earlier than 4:30, sometimes later depending on seasons. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's days.
Directions to Visitor Center:
From Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Powder Mill Road exit, then east following signs to Visitor Center.
Directions to North Tract:
From Baltimore-Washington Parkway, MD-198 exit, then east toward Fort Meade, right at refuge sign immediately before ball field on right.
For further information, contact:
National Wildlife Visitor Center
10901 Scarlet Tanager Loop
Laurel, MD 20708-4027
Patuxent Research Refuge North Tract
230 Bald Eagle Drive
Laurel, MD 20724-3000
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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