10 Cities Campaign: Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Video produced for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service by Tandem Stills + Motion in collaboration with The National Wildlife Refuge Association. 


The Bear River is a major western river that meanders through arid plains and valleys in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho before flowing into the Great Salt Lake. It was vital to the settlement of the west, from the native Shoshone to the Mormon pioneers, who relied on the river for fishing, resource gathering, and irrigation for crops. It also serves as an important stop on an even older migratory route: For birds. The Bear River’s delta on the northeastern edge of the Great Salt Lake encompasses parts of both the Pacific and Central Flyways, meaning it is an incredibly important crossroads for millions of birds.

In marginal environments, use pressures can have major consequences. As the population of Utah and surrounding states increased, so did demand for water for agriculture. In the 1920s, water diversion dried up the wetlands, forcing birds to occupy smaller areas of land, leading to an outbreak of avian botulism that resulted in the deaths of millions of birds. This environmental emergency prompted the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge to be established in 1928. Dikes and canals were built to restore 25,000 acres of wetlands.

All that work was undone in 1983 when the lake flooded, inundating the wetlands with salt water and damaging refuge structures. It took 6 years for the waters to recede, allowing work to begin on rebuilding water control systems and restoring the habitat. Eventually, 40,000 acres were restored, and millions of birds returned to the refuge to eat, rest, and nest once again. And this time, humans from the increasingly urban I-15 corridor came to take advantage of one of the best places to view wildlife in the continental United States.

Because it’s surrounded on all sides by dry desert, Bear River MBR acts as a magnet for over 200 species of animals. Kathi Stopher, Visitor Services Manager, says it means that visitors are “guaranteed to see wildlife.” That guarantee draws people in, and inspires engagement among all age groups, but particularly children and young adults.

One such recent visitor was musician Conner Youngblood. Youngblood came to the refuge through a nonprofit called Sustain Music & Nature, which brings musicians to public lands for a few days of immersion through its Songscapes program. Southwest Magazine wrote about the trip and Youngblood’s music video was released January 2018.

For younger people, Bear River MBR is not just a source of inspiration, but also education. As an outdoor classroom, the refuge stands out, which is no small feat in a state that includes some of the most iconic public lands in the country. In addition to Junior Ranger programs, children and their families can connect with the natural world through the Wetland Wings and Other Wild Things program and Mountain Wilds to Wetland Wonders, Bear River’s premiere environmental education program for 4th graders.

For young people who can’t get to the refuge, teachers can bring the refuge to them with Traveling Trunks, which are filled with activities and tools to teach students about water quality, bird adaptations, and migration.

“What we have seen is these kids become ambassadors and take the information home to their parents and siblings,” said Stopher.

Even in a challenging time for public lands in the state, inspiring stewardship and engagement among young people ensures that the refuge will continue to be an oasis for birds and humans alike for years to come.

More Information:

The first stop for visitors should be the James V. Hansen Wildlife Education Center. There are interpretive signs, educational exhibits, two theaters, and trails. The theater shows the 27-minute “Wings of Thunder” documentary, produced by Friends of the Bear River Refuge.

The 12-mile auto or bike tour is a great introduction to the refuge, offering scenic pullouts for photo ops. There is an audio tour available for download.

NWRA’s Urban Refuge Program – Protecting our Conservation Future strives to reach beyond refuge boundaries to engage with and connect people of all ages to nature and our Refuge System.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2018/03/10-cities-campaign-bear-river-migratory-bird-refuge/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>