Hundreds of thousands of Americans are getting involved with wildlife conservation by helping the national wildlife refuge system in one way or another. Refuge managers are looking more and more to volunteers to fill in staffing gaps due to funding restrictions. Ann and Paul Smith, for example, have been volunteering at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia for more than a decade. “The refuge has approximately 40 volunteers doing everything from water sampling to helping with squirrel tagging and quite a few other things,” says Ann Smith. When they retired, the Smiths started an important shorebird survey for the Refuge. “We go there for five months of the year every week and do the survey,” she reports, “and for seven months of the year we go there every other week.” The Smiths have also taken an active role to help with the rescue and rehabilitation of injured birds on refuge lands, and they help train new volunteers in leading interpretive programs and staffing the visitor center.
While volunteering directly for a refuge is a good way to get involved, others prefer to form or join refuge friends’ groups which operate as independent non-profit entities with the mission of aiding the wildlife conservation efforts of local refuges. The strength of friends’ groups lies in their outside perspective. “Friends can do and say things refuge employees can’t,” says Beverly Heinze-Lacey of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, which launched a nationwide Friends Initiative in 1996 to build a national refuge support network. “After all,” says Heinze-Lacey, “refuges belong to the American public. We can and should claim ownership and exert it.”
Those more inclined to monitor their local refuge independently can take an active role by submitting comments on drafts of the refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan, writing to Congressional representatives to request support for increased refuge system funding, and mobilizing local support against proposed projects that threaten refuge lands. Concerned citizens can stay informed and find opportunities to get involved by getting on local refuges’ mailing lists and periodically checking in on their websites.