Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge
Walden, CO 80480
Telephone: (303) 723-8202
Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge is located in an intermountain glacial basin south of Walden, county seat of Jackson County, Colorado. The basin is approximately 35 miles wide and 45 miles long. It is the northernmost of four such "parks" in Colorado and is known locally as North Park. North Park opens north into Wyoming and is rimmed on the west by the Park Range, on the south by the Rabbit Ears Mountains, on the southeast by the Never-Summer Range, and on the east and northeast by the Medicine Bow Range. Numerous slow, meandering streams are interspersed on the basin floor and eventually come together to form the headwaters of the North Platte River. Most of the flood plain along the streams is irrigated meadow, while the low rises adjacent to the flood plain and the higher rises on the refuge are characterized by sagebrush grasslands.
Summer in North Park is warm but brief, with just enough sun and rain to green the bottomlands and upland slopes and to bring forth fingerling trout in the streams. Winter has nearly always driven less hardy and vigorous creatures, including humans, to lower elevations.
Footprints of the Past
The Ute Indians referred to North Park as "Cow Lodge" and "Bull Pen." They were the first visitors to the area and remained only during the summer months to hunt bison, abandoning the valley during the long, snowy, and icy winters. Their small numbers and nomadic lifestyle left but a small imprint on the land. One might easily imagine their quiet encampments within the refuge.
The first recorded exploratory footsteps to appear in the valley belonged to Jacques Bijeau in the year 1820. Like many of his French countrymen, Bijeau was lured by the promise of profit in trapping beaver.
In 1844, Lieutenant John F. Fremont traversed the park from Northgate to Willow Creek Pass and recorded the following in his journal:
"The valley narrowed as we ascended and presently divided into a gorge, through which the river passed as through a gate - a beautiful circular valley of 30 miles in diameter, walled in all around with snowy mountains, rich with water and grass, fringed with pine on the mountain sides below the snow, and a paradise to all grazing animals."
Others, like James O. Pinkham, came to exploit mineral wealth. Miners preferred the summer months for their endeavors. The first residents to brave the cold were Jacob Fordyce and his family. They stayed the winter of 1878, 2 years after Colorado became a State and a full 50 years after the first explorers entered the valley.
A Home For Wildlife
Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1967 to furnish waterfowl with a suitable place to nest and rear their young. To the east in the undulating prairies of the Dakotas and Minnesota, thousands of waterfowl-producing wetlands have been and continue to be destroyed by drainage and filling activities due to farming operations, road construction, and housing developments. Arapaho Refuge was created to offset, in part, losses of nesting habitat in the prairie wetland region of the Midwest.
To ensure availability of water in such a dry climate, water is diverted from the Illinois River and directed through a complex system of ditches to irrigate meadows and fill water fowl brood ponds. Periodic burning, irrigation and various grazing systems are management tools used on the refuge meadows to maintain vegetative vigor for nesting purposes. Manipulation of water levels in the shallow ponds assures adequate aquatic vegetation for food and escape cover. The ponds also produce many insects and other invertebrates (protein) needed by most female waterfowl for successful egg laying. These insects also serve as an essential food item for the growth of ducklings and goslings during the summer months.
The first waterfowl arrive at Arapaho when the ice vanishes in April. The peak migration occurs in late May when 5,000 or more ducks may be present. Canada geese have been reestablished in North Park and begin nesting on the refuge during April. Duck nesting usually starts in early June and peaks in late June. The refuge produces about 9,000 ducklings and 150 to 200 goslings each year. When refuge lands are fully acquired and developed, waterfowl production should increase significantly.
Primary upland nesting species include the mallard, pintail, gadwall, and American wigeon. A number of diving ducks, including the lesser scaup and redhead, nest on the larger ponds and adjacent wet meadows. Most species may be observed during the entire summer season. Fall migration reaches its height in late September or early October when up to 8,000 waterfowl may be on the refuge.
Refuge wetlands also attract numerous marsh, shore, and water birds. Sora and Virginia rails—shy, secretive birds—are numerous but seldom seen. If they are present, Wilson's phalarope, American avocet, willet, sandpipers, yellowlegs, and dowitchers will be easy to observe. Other less common species include great blue heron, black-crowned night heron, American bittern, and eared and pied-billed grebe.
The upland hills harbor sage grouse year around with a winter population of more than 200 birds. Golden eagles, several species of hawks, and an occasional prairie falcon circle the skies above the refuge in search of food. Their prey includes Richardson's ground squirrel, white-tailed prairie dog, and white-tailed jackrabbit.
Badger, muskrat, beaver, coyote, and pronghorn antelope are commonly observed. Now and then one may see a red fox, mink, long-tailed weasel, or porcupine. As many as 400 mule deer have wintered here and up to 200 elk are frequently seen during the winter months. Moose have recently been reintroduced into North Park and may occasionally be observed in the willow thickets along the Illinois River bottoms. There are no poisonous snakes.
Invitation To The Public
The public is welcome to observe and photograph wildlife. One can sense the vibrancy of life here; the faint whirrings of insects, the murmur of moving water, the comings and goings of mammals, and the flights of birds set against the brilliant sky at dawn or dusk.
Aldo Leopold, a thoughtful and sensitive conservationist of a generation ago, suggested an attitude that might help people appreciate more fully the values of our national heritage when he wrote: "When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."
You are invited to take the self-guided 6-mile wildlife auto tour route and learn about the refuge, its wildlife, and wildlife habitat. After taking the tour, you may want to visit the Illinois River overlook and interpretive display.
Public fishing is permitted on the Illinois River except in those areas posted as "CLOSED". Fishing is challenging because of dense willow growth along the river banks. These willows are essential to the fish, keeping water temperatures low. Expect to catch mostly brown trout with an occasional rainbow or brook trout. IMPORTANT: The refuge is closed to fishing from June 1 through July 31 each year to minimize disturbance to nesting waterfowl.
Portions of the refuge are open to public hunting of some game species during appropriate State seasons. Consult the refuge manager for more information concerning seasons and regulations.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication