NWF Picks: Top Wildlife-Watching Spots

From coast to coast, many of the special places NWF has helped protect also provide exceptional opportunities to view wild animals

  • Laura Tangley
  • Jan 19, 2011

THROUGHOUT ITS 75-YEAR HISTORY, NWF has fought to safeguard hundreds of habitats critical to sustaining the nation’s wildlife. Many of these places also turn out to be excellent places to see wild animals. Here are ten of our favorite destinations, where visitors can get good looks at gray wolves, alligators, moose, elk, whooping cranes and other iconic North American species.

Platte River, Nebraska

Each spring, the skies over Nebraska’s Platte River fill with birds: 10 million ducks and geese, a half million sandhill cranes and many other birds, large and small, fly in to eat and rest during the long migration to their northern breeding grounds. This seasonal gathering of birds is one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles. Sadly, the magnificent display—witnessed by thousands of bird-watchers a year—is threatened by massive diversions of water for irrigation, municipal water supplies, power generation and other human uses. For years, fighting to keep adequate amounts of water flowing into the Platte has been a top priority for NWF and its affiliate, the Nebraska Wildlife Federation. Working with state and federal officials, the groups have been helping develop a new water-management plan for the region. “We can’t afford to wait until the water’s gone to take action,” explains Duane Hovorka, the Nebraska affiliate’s executive director.

To see the Platte’s magnificent gathering of wildlife for yourself, plan to visit between late February and early April. There are three main areas where birds congregate: the Kearney-to-Grand Island and Overton-to-Elm Creek sections of the Platte River and the North Platte-to-Sutherland section of the North Platte River. Because cranes are accustomed to cars, and roads closely parallel the river, a motor vehicle makes an ideal viewing blind. For even closer views, Rowe Sanctuary and Crane Meadows offer wooden blinds and bunkers. It’s easiest to reserve a blind on weekdays, when roads are also less crowded.

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Montana

In 1936—the year NWF was founded—delegations of sportsmen organized by the new national group and an affiliate, the Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF), urged the government to offset the impact of Fort Peck Dam, which was about to flood a large swath of wildlife habitat in the state. The result was the creation, by executive order, of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, a 1.1-million-acre haven of native prairie, forest and badlands that is considered one of the crown jewels of the refuge system. Since then, NWF and MWF have remained actively involved in improving wildlife habitat on the refuge, particularly reducing competition with grazing cattle. Most recently, the federation’s Northern Rockies and Prairies Regional Center has been buying grazing allotments in the refuge—45,000 acres to date—as part of a larger NWF program in the region. (See “Reducing Conflict on Public Lands.”)

A paradise for wildlife watchers, the refuge teems with species from elk, mule deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep to golden eagles and sharp-tailed and sage grouse. When NWF Senior Wildlife Biologist Sterling Miller visits the refuge, he likes to spend time at one of its many prairie dog towns. Considered a keystone species, these mammals provide food and habitat for a variety of other creatures, including some very rare ones. But most interesting of all may be the highly social prairie dogs themselves. “Unlike many mammals, they’re active all day long,” says Miller, “and they’re just a lot of fun to watch.”

Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge, Mississippi

Back in 1941, when NWF was still a fledgling, financially struggling organization, it teamed up with an affiliate, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, to fight a federal water project that would have destroyed 200,000 acres of pristine wetlands and bottomland forest in the state’s Delta region. Known as the Yazoo Pumps, the project’s purpose was to dry out private land to be more suitable for commercial agriculture—at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of hundreds of millions of dollars. At-risk wetlands and forests—dubbed “America’s Amazon” by NWF Senior Resource Specialist David Conrad—included habitat for millions of migrating and wintering waterfowl and the threatened Louisiana black bear.

More than a half century passed before the groups could declare victory. Joined by tens of thousands of local and national activists, NWF and MWF finally persuaded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “dump the pump” in 2009. On August 9 of that year, EPA Administrator Steve Johnson vetoed the Yazoo, only the 12th project veto in the agency’s history.

The best way to enjoy the Delta’s abundant wildlife today is to visit Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge, where the new, quarter-mile Holt Collier Boardwalk leads to an observation tower offering views of American alligators, pied-billed grebes, moorhens, wood ducks and, in winter, several other waterfowl species. At Alligator Pond, another tower provides close looks at alligators, purple gallinules, herons and dozens of other kinds of birds. Some visitors have even spotted black bears near the western edge of the refuge.

Puget Sound, Washington

The orca pods that ply the waters of Washington’s Puget Sound are in trouble, declared endangered five years ago by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Scientists say the main reason for the mammals’ decline is decreased populations of chinook salmon, the orcas’ most important food. For several years, NWF’s Pacific Regional Center has been working to bring salmon back to the sound by protecting and restoring the species’ habitat. Already, a lawsuit brought by NWF has led to reforms in how the federal government implements its National Flood Insurance Program, a primary driver—along with global warming—of coastal salmon habitat loss. “We’ve adopted a proactive strategy to safeguard both terrestrial and coastal habitat for salmon,” says Patty Glick, the center’s global warming specialist. “That’s the only way we can hope to enjoy orcas in Puget Sound for generations to come.”

A multimillion-dollar business, watching orcas—or killer whales—in the sound is a thrill for residents as well as visitors. Peak season runs between April and September. A variety of companies offer tours, most of them traveling to the San Juan Islands. “But some tour operators are better than others,” warns Glick, who says whale-watching boats sometimes get too close to the mammals. For help finding a responsible operator, check with the Safe Whale Watching Association or the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

When the gray wolf was reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, NWF’s Tom Dougherty—then a member of the federal Yellowstone Wolf Committee—was the only nongovernmental representative invited to the historic event. “It was a testament to Tom’s leadership along with the contributions of other federation staff and our affiliates in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming that wolves were restored to Yellowstone,” says Steve Torbit, regional executive director in NWF’s Rocky Mountain Regional Center, who also has long campaigned to protect wolves, bears, bison and other wildlife in and around the park.

Today Yellowstone is the only place in the United States where visitors are virtually guaranteed to spot wild wolves—if they go to the right place at the right time. According to Torbit, there are two wolf-watching “hot spots.” During winter, he recommends visiting the Lamar Valley, “where elk, the wolf’s primary prey, herd up, meaning that predators become more concentrated as well.” In spring, summer and fall, the park’s Hayden Valley is a better bet. Though several outfitters offer guided wolf-watching tours, it’s not really necessary, says Torbit. “If you drive through the Lamar or Hayden valleys and spot a lot of people and vehicles pulled off the road, that’s probably where the wolves are.” Make sure to bring along binoculars or a spotting scope.

Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, New England

New England’s Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge is a refuge like no other. Spanning about 30,000 acres across four states—Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut—“it is the only refuge that has been set aside specifically to protect an entire watershed,” says Eric Palola, senior director of NWF’s Forests for Wildlife Program. A vision of the late U.S. Representative Silvio O. Conte, the refuge was created by Congress and named in his honor in 1997. In the years leading up to its creation, NWF’s Northeastern Regional Center in Vermont and national advocacy team in Washington, D.C., “actively supported this unprecedented and creative approach to securing a new national wildlife refuge,” says Palola.

The refuge is a haven for wildlife watchers. “You can see everything from bald eagles to moose to, during spring migration, warblers and ducks that are flying up from the Caribbean and Atlantic Coast to breed in Canada,” says Palola. Two of the best areas for viewing wildlife are the refuge’s Nulhegan Basin Division in Vermont and Pondicherry Division in New Hampshire. Both feature accessible trails as well as interpretive kiosks. The Nulhegan Basin also includes 40 miles of gravel road that are open to motor vehicles during summer and fall.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

For decades, protecting the integrity of ecosystems and wildlife in the Great Lakes region has been a top priority for NWF. With its affiliates—including the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Minnesota Conservation Federation, Indiana Wildlife Federation and Prairie Rivers Network—NWF has helped garner billions of dollars to improve the health of the lakes through habitat restoration, pollution cleanup and sewage-system modernization. NWF also has played a leading role winning protections against the introduction of destructive invasive species such as Asian carp.

Wildlife viewing opportunities abound in the region. In Michigan, NWF Regional Executive Director Andy Buchsbaum calls Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore “one of the jewels of the Great Lakes, a national treasure.” The protected area encompasses 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, plus two entire islands. Standing at the overlook above the 400-foot-high dunes, visitors may spot white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, bald eagles and, during spring and fall migration, groups of hawks soaring overhead. Canoeing or kayaking in Otter Creek and Otter Lake provides views of mink and muskrats as well as beavers. A special treat in early summer is the chance to see nesting piping plovers. Because these endangered birds are protected by law, tourists must keep their distance but can view the birds through the park’s spotting scopes.

Everglades National Park, Florida

Stretching from just south of Orlando to the Florida Keys, the Everglades is a unique aquatic ecosystem spanning more than 18,000 square miles and providing habitat for thousands of species. For decades, NWF has worked with its affiliate Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF) and other groups to protect and restore the beleaguered watershed, less than 50 percent of which remains intact. In 2000, the two groups played a key role convincing Congress to pass the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, putting in motion the largest ecosystem restoration plan in U.S. history. With FWF, NWF now is litigating to protect key areas on the western side of the watershed from planned mining and other development projects. “It’s much less expensive to protect habitats up front than to restore them once they’re gone,” explains Malia Hale, director of NWF’s national restoration and water resources campaigns.

Wildlife lovers who visit the region flock to Everglades National Park at the southern end of the watershed. A mecca for bird-watchers, the park is also one of the premier places to see American alligators up close. You can spot the huge, prehistoric-looking creatures easily from canoes and hiking trails, including the park’s popular Anhinga Trail boardwalk. During the dry season, rangers lead daytime and evening gator tours from the Royal Palm Visitor Center.

Valle Vidal, New Mexico

Nine years ago, one of the Southwest’s premier wildlife havens was nearly turned into an industrial zone: In June 2002, the Houston-based El Paso Corporation asked the U.S. Forest Service to open up Carson National Forest’s Valle Vidal Unit to coalbed methane mining. A lush mountain basin in northern New Mexico, the 167-square-mile Valle Vidal—valley of life—teems with mule deer, black bears, mountain lions and the state’s largest elk herd. Responding to the threat, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, an NWF affiliate, joined the Coalition for the Valle Vidal, an alliance of conservationists, sportsmen, ranchers and others that generated 60,000 letters of protest in 2005 alone. In Washington, D.C., NWF advocates took the fight to Congress. These efforts paid off in December 2006, when President Bush signed the Valle Vidal Preservation Act, permanently closing the area to oil and gas development.

Today as many as 50,000 people visit Valle Vidal each year to fish, hunt, hike and watch wildlife. About 50 miles east of Taos, the protected area has a network of roads and trails offering magnificent views of mountain peaks and meadows, plus two campgrounds. “It’s a spectacular place to visit,” says NWF Regional Representative John Gale. “I’ve seen all the major species there. We call it the Yellowstone of the Southwest.”

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

On the Texas coast, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is famous for hosting the continent’s largest wild flock of endangered whooping cranes—and the only flock that still migrates. Each fall, these magnificent birds, now numbering around 250, set out from nesting grounds in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park and fly 2,500 miles to wintering grounds in the refuge. At Aransas, “the cranes depend almost entirely on the adjacent Guadalupe Estuary for their food, primarily blue crabs, wolf berries, clams and insects,” says Norman Johns, a water-resources scientist in NWF’s Austin-based South Central Regional Center. For many years, ensuring adequate flows of freshwater into the estuary—essential for maintaining appropriate salinity levels and delivering critical nutrients—has been one of the center’s highest priorities. In 2007, pressure from NWF and other groups led to landmark state legislation establishing a formal process to protect these inflows, which are threatened by the state’s rapidly growing human population.

To get a look at North America’s tallest birds—which stand 5 feet tall with 7-foot wingspans—visit Aransas between mid-October and March. Visitors can usually spot a pair or family from the observation tower; ask at the visitor center about the most recent sightings. To see larger numbers of cranes, take a boat trip out of Rockport. Several companies offer tours that may be reserved in advance.


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