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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The joy of wildlife observation as a pastime

Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge entrance sign is seen on Aug. 9, 2020. The diverse terrain of the sprawling refuge include grasslands, wetlands and forests that support many ecosystems on the edge of the Columbia River Basin.  (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Ammi Midstokke For the Spokesman-Review

The hobby of wildlife observation has been a dying pastime except perhaps to a few introverted birdwatchers and those trying to spare their urban chickens from the urban coyotes. There is a common assumption that to see wildlife, we must venture into the wild and weather all matter of danger, and what with our clanking Nalgene bottles and yapping children, the animals will scurry a safe distance from our cacophony of “nature viewing.”

It is perhaps precisely this that makes the wildlife refuge such a precious (and worthy of protection) space in the United States. Wildlife refuges, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, are designated for the conservation and restoration of wildlife habitat. Briefly put: It’s where animals live, migrate through and thrive in spaces that are safe from the sprawl of humanity. But they are also an important educational bridge for the population: a place we can go to see, learn about and support the conservation of native wildlife.

Not far from downtown Spokane, the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge boasts just that kind of nature and a surprising variety of fauna meandering around this more-than-20,000-acre oasis. Established in 1937, the refuge’s history reflects the early conservation efforts of the area. As settlers came and turned much of the Palouse and surrounding areas into farmland, wildlife was forced to migrate away and plant species were diminished.

The Turnbull area was not great for farming and area hunters and conservationists established it as a refuge, restoring habitat and encouraging the return of a variety of animals. And, if you’re into that sort of thing, lots of bat species.

What is remarkable about this particular place, aside from its expansive wetlands and arid grasslands to its timbered slopes, is how accessible the unscathed space is to the average citizen. While only about 25% of the refuge is available to the public (we don’t want to disturb the animals, just view them), there are both driving loops and accessible paths for all. Pets are welcome on leashes, and there are miles of trail to meander. It’s also free.

With a recent change in management and the challenges of recovering from the impacts of the pandemic, Ranger Josh Contois explains that their primary focus is on upgrading signage and literature for visitors and making the refuge informative and educational, even when staff is not available. Ranger Contois has also been managing a volunteer program to pot over 5,000 trees for fall planting. Their Earth Day event on April 22 invites the community to come help in the expansive undertaking.

The nonprofit organization, Friends of Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, are adding to the excitement of the area by maintaining the little store on-site and hosting a variety of educational opportunities and hikes. Their current project is the implementation of a Pollinator Garden. These types of “gardens” are restored areas of flowers, fruits, and plants that attract bees, moths, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators to support the pollination of crops.

Threats to the wildlife refuge systems have been unprecedented in recent years, impacting the migratory patterns and natural habitats of animals. From urban expansion to oil drilling, these delicate lands are slowly being allocated to other purposes. Perhaps that in itself is a reason to spend time in these spaces while they still exist.

And because living in the city doesn’t mean we cannot access nature in all its beauty and wonder. It is precisely these experiences that remind us to appreciate and preserve them. Whether we take our children to watch the ducklings, or spot the rare golden eagle, or take Grandma for a turn on the trails, the area wildlife refuges promise to reawaken curiosity and reverence for the world we live in. Some pastimes just never lose their magic.