10 Cities Campaign: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

“To everything, there is a season.” Nowhere is this more fitting than with Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. The Arsenal is truly an urban refuge, located northeast of Denver’s rapidly developing neighborhoods along the South Platte River, and west of Denver International Airport. It contains 15,000 acres of high prairie, wetland, and woodland habitats and has gone through many seasons, changes that took it from a wartime asset to a de-facto urban park, to protected land, to being designated one of 14 regional priority urban wildlife refuges by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“I think it’s a real story of transformation,” says Cindy Souders, Supervisor for Visitor Service Programs.

Centuries ago, indigenous people arrived in the area following the seasonal migration of buffalo, their primary game source for food and raw materials for trade goods. After World War II and through the 1980s, the land was used by the U.S. Army for manufacturing, eventually being phased out of use and work began on environmental remediation. Due to the absence of human activity, animals like bald eagles and prairie dogs began moving back into the area, essentially making it a nature park. After the bulk of the cleanup was completed, visitor-friendly structures were added and the mission switched fully from cleanup to conservation.

Baby Bison At RMA Photo: Peter Eades / USFWS

While some native animals were able to find their way back, others had to be introduced. The iconic American bison was reintroduced in 2007, and more recently, black-footed ferrets were added. They joined the more than 330 species of wildlife that has been observed on the refuge, from deer and coyote to burrowing owls and migratory birds.

Now that the animals are back, what about the humans? Despite its location, awareness was an issue.

“We have this amazing gem that people don’t know about, especially people who are close to it,” said Ryan Moehring, Public Affairs Specialist.

Because of its proximity to the city, awareness could be raised through direct outreach. Rocky Mountain Arsenal has created extensive and innovative partnerships with local open space agencies and various environmental education organizations and programs aimed at getting more diverse and underrepresented youth engaged in learning about the ecology of the high plains, as well as experiencing recreation opportunities that are part of Denver’s “outdoorsy” culture. Partnerships with local schools and the Go Wild Northeast Metro coalition have resulted in the establishment of urban pollinator and even salsa gardens and brought hundreds of thousands of people from underrepresented neighborhoods to the refuge over the past three years.

Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK) was founded by wildlife biologists Stacie and Scott Gilmore, longtime residents of the Montbello neighborhood, which is literally across the street from the southern border of the Arsenal. One of the densest and diverse neighborhoods in Denver, Montbello was lacking in green space itself, but access to the refuge was limited. The refuge works closely with ELK to deliver educational programming, create greater connections between Denver youth and nature and offers memorable experiences to children when they participate in nature walks and peer-led fishing days.  

So what does the future hold for Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR? Cindy Souders and others at the refuge would love to see public access improved. Because it’s surrounded by major roads, the only way to access the refuge is by car. Souders dreams of pedestrian overpasses and bike lanes to bring more local residents in, and there are already signs that Denver is committed to integrating the refuge into their open space plan, beginning with the First Creek at DEN Open Space, Denver’s largest open space trail system, which is a step toward connecting neighborhood trails with the refuge.


Events & Programming at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR

The refuge has so many free events, they need to produce the Wild News newsletter every two months to list them all.

Fishing is very popular at the refuge because there are two lakes. There is Fishing Frenzy in April, in addition to the ELK peer fishing instruction program.

There are also programs for birding, hiking, habitat management, and viewing the black-footed ferrets that call the refuge home. Earth Day in April and Refuge Day in October are big days for the refuge. This Earth Day, they are looking for volunteers to help get rid of noxious weeds.

There is a monthly viewing tour conducted in Spanish and most of the interpreter panels in the visitors center are bilingual.

If you can’t make an event, try the 11-mile Wildlife Drive. It covers a large portion of the landscape, including the bison pasture.

Visiting multiple times per year provides different experiences as the seasons change. Spring brings with it plenty of birds and bison calves, prairie dog pups, and fawns. Summer is a time of wildflowers and fishing, for both people and pelicans. Fall brings waterfowl, coyotes, and bucks with impressive antlers. Winter blankets the ground with snow, making animals easy to see, including bald eagles and other raptors.

This is an article by guest blogger Kelly Dudzik.


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-rocky-mountain-arsenal-national-wildlife-refuge/

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