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By Caroline Downs
Everyone can use a little help from their friends from time to time, and the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge is no exception.
In fact, refuge staff is looking forward to that assistance as a new Refuge Friends Group forms among individuals from Kenmare and the surrounding communities.
Refuge manager Chad Zorn and education and outreach coordinator Jennifer Jewett held an informational meeting May 1st to explore local interest for starting a Friends Group at the refuge.
“My great-grandparents homesteaded on part of what is now the J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge,” Zorn said. “The whole reason I’m here [as a refuge manager] is because of hunting deer on the refuge and shooting waterfowl that came off the refuge. But I wonder how many lifelong residents there are in this community who have never stepped foot on the refuge.”
“We’re hoping a collaboration with a Friends Group can help us with outreach,” said Jewett. Refuge Friends Groups act as advocates for local refuges, helping with projects and programs, promoting refuge events to the public, and raising funds to support various refuge activities.
Seven residents from Kenmare and Bowbells attended the meeting, with other individuals sending word they were interested as well. Members of the group emphasized they would like to see closer ties between the refuge and area communities.
“The refuge is under-used,” said Jane Kalmbach. “There could be so much more going on out here for the youth. The Canada Goose Trail is a great walking trail for families, and the boat dock area used to be a huge picnic area, but do people know about that?”
Ruth Wallstrum agreed. “There’s so much here that no one knows about, looking at it from an education standpoint,” she said. She added that despite growing up in Tolley and living in Kenmare, she never spent much time at the refuge until her son worked there under the Youth Conservation Corps program a few years ago. “Let’s promote this place!”
Chuck Leet also suggested improving communications about refuge events with the communities, especially Kenmare, where the city limits adjoin the refuge boundary in several locations.
Jewett offered a brief explanation about the organization of the national wildlife refuges. “The Des Lacs refuge is here in Kenmare, but we’re part of a huge system,” she said.
North Dakota has more national wildlife refuges than any other state, with 63 refuges covering about 290,000 acres. Another 254,000 acres in the state are included in waterfowl production areas. Operations at the Des Lacs NWR take place under the Souris River Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Upper Souris NWR and J. Clark Salyer NWR.
Jewett noted that visitors often confuse refuges with national parks. “National wildlife refuges and national parks have two different missions,” she said. “We’re here for the wildlife, and sometimes it’s hard to convey to the public that wildlife comes first.”
Even with the constraints of refuge management plans, Jewett said refuges do have opportunities to offer the public, especially a place like the Des Lacs NWR located so close to a community.
She and Zorn listed several programs already taking place or scheduled for the Des Lacs refuge that could benefit from assistance by volunteers in a Refuge Friends Group, including Greenwing Day, the Haunted Hayride, wildflower walks, winter ecology programs, Refuge Week events, birding programs like the annual Christmas Bird Count, photography classes, guided nature hikes, the Junior Duck Stamp program, and outdoor classroom programs planned with area schools.
A Refuge Friends Group could donate volunteer labor and support materials to Des Lacs NWR projects such as litter cleanup, landscaping around the headquarters, maintaining informational kiosks, developing bird feeding stations, and participating in biological surveys and native forb seeding projects.
Individuals present at the meeting mentioned other potential projects, including improving the blinds for and access to the sharp-tailed grouse dancing grounds, using technology and social networking to post information about specific bird and wildlife sightings, and developing more birding programs for the public.
A Refuge Friends Group can operate as a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization under a written agreement of collaboration with the refuge. As such an organization, long-term goals could include establishing a gift shop, with proceeds directed toward educational programs and other refuge activities, and writing grants to support refuge programs and habitat projects.
The Kenmare Association of Commerce and several adult volunteers have offered tremendous assistance in the past, according to Jewett, and a Refuge Friends Group would provide even better coordination between community groups and the refuge. “We’re always facing budget cuts and staff cuts, so we need help from local citizens,” she continued. “The Friends Group could raise funds to support refuge projects and programs that benefit the natural resource, the city of Kenmare and the surrounding communities.”
A handful of other Friends Groups are already at work around the state, including at the Lostwood, Audubon, Tewaukon and Chase Lake national wildlife refuges and Sullys Hill National Game Preserve.
“A Friends Group serves as a kind of advisory board to the refuge manager,” Zorn said, adding that Friends Groups did not make policy or management decisions. “We need help planning, coordinating and getting things lined up for our programs and public events.”
The next meeting of the Des Lacs NWR Friends Group is scheduled for Thursday, May 17th, at 5:30 pm at the Des Lacs NWR headquarters, one mile west of Kenmare. All persons interested in sharing their time, interest or expertise with the Des Lacs NWR, on a large- or small-scale, are welcome to attend.
The agenda for that meeting includes development of a mission statement, by-laws and board of directors, and discussion about which refuge events and projects the Friends Group will focus on during the coming months.
For more information about the Des Lacs NWR Friends Group, contact Jewett at 701-385-4046 ext. 221.