The Urban Wildlife Conservation Program Is the Best Outdoor Initiative You’ve Never Heard Of
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program in 2012, it had one vision: to bring wildlife viewing and outdoor exploration to ten demographically and geographically varied cities across America by 2015. The service surpassed those expectations this summer. There are now 14 Urban Wildlife Refuges—classified as regional priorities—that connect 80 percent of Americans living in cities to wild places, from the bayou of New Orleans to the Detroit River.
“It’s a change in the way we operate so that a larger metropolitan audience can access, enjoy, and experience wildlife in its native environment,” says Teri Jillson, president at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque, in a USFWS video. “Somehow we’ve lost a little bit of touch with the environment, and we need to reconnect.”
Photographer Ian Shive had the opportunity to explore these wildlife refuges and document those reconnections between the urban and the environment by teaming up with Los Angeles-based photography agency Tandem Stock. Here, he shares some of his most memorable experiences with us.
Just outside San Diego, this beach is less popular than most of San Diego’s public beaches and serves as essential habitat for many migrating shorebirds and waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway.
This oceanside refuge is home to endangered nesting bird colonies and provides a beautiful open space to the surrounding communities. “This refuge is uniquely situated along the U.S.-Mexico border and plays an important role in giving urban communities some open space,” Shive says. This photo was taken from the U.S. but the buildings in the far distance in are in Mexico.
Shive was able to document elegant terns in flight over their nesting grounds. “This was an incredible experience,” he says. “The sound of these elegant terns was deafening and it was amazing to know that 50 percent of the world’s population of these birds was nesting here, on a small raised berm within sight of the San Diego skyline.” As a photographer, Shive had to be accompanied by biologists and Fish and Wildlife staffers since the entire ground was covered in eggs. “Every egg counts and it is critical to watch where you step first, take photos second.”
Shive: Small, fuzzy, and adorable, these terns become mobile very quickly. When we would approach the nests with wildlife biologists they would sometimes scatter—their tiny legs trying to get them going—but they never got too far. The biologists were careful to make sure the birds were returned to their nests where they are safest, and to ensure that our impact was as minimal as possible.
Shive: Finding a whitetail antler out in the open grasslands of this refuge made a perfect foreground for a pastel-colored sunset. Besides being places for hiking and wildlife watching, the refuges offer a quick escape for city dwellers to work on their photography.
Shive and his crew created their own version of a Vanagon to explore the backroads and hidden nooks of the refuges. “While documenting the refuges our team couldn’t get over how much open space we seemingly had all to ourselves,” says Shive. “One of the greatest parts of spending time in refuges versus other places is the lack of crowds.”
The site was designated a national wildlife refuge in 1992 by Congress and underwent a costly environmental cleanup to remove pollutants. Now, more than 330 species of wildlife inhabit the refuge, including deer, coyotes, white pelicans, owls, and bison.
Shive: The thing all urban refuges have in common is that they never cease to surprise you with their beauty and accessibility. Rocky Mountain Arsenal is located eight miles northeast of downtown Denver, so it’s a quick and wonderful escape.
It wouldn’t be a true bayou experience without the opportunity to tour the swamps on an airboat. “There is nothing as exhilarating as traveling on an airboat through a refuge looking for alligators,” says Shive. “The refuge staff helped us get off the trail and into the backwaters that make this place—within the New Orleans city limits—an important and special resource for the community.”