J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Refuge Manager
1 Wildlife Drive
Sanibel, FL 33957

Entering the natural world of J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge can be an exhilarating experience. At least one refuge visitor is known to have repeatedly traveled the refuge drive for several days, each time seeing the striking differences in bird presence brought about by tidal changes and each time anticipating additional exciting views of the over 50 species of wading and shorebirds that frequent this barrier island refuge.

Adding to the lure of this popular refuge is its subtropical location in one of Florida's prime tourist areas. Ding Darling NWR occupies over 5000 acres of Sanibel Island, a renowned resort area on Florida's Gulf Coast across San Carlos Bay by causeway from Fort Myers, the nation's fastest growing city between 1970 and 1980.

The extreme popularity of this outstanding refuge has created unique management challenges for manager Lou Hinds, who has witnessed burgeoning visitor populations and the impact they have had on refuge wildlife populations. But with the able assistance of the refuge staff and a cadre of volunteers plus the support of the highly motivated Ding Darling Wildlife Society, Hinds is breaking new ground in limiting wildlife disruptions while assuring visitors that they are welcome.

Location: Sanibel Island off Florida's Gulf Coast; across the causeway from Ft. Myers.
Size: 5,000+ acres.
Features: Barrier island. 243 bird species including tundra swan, bald eagle, and green-backed heron.
Activities: Hiking, canoeing, wildlife drives, birdwatching.
Photos: Spoonbill, Great blue heron; Green-backed heron.


Established as Sanibel NWR in 1945 and administered by the Florida refuge that later became the Everglades National Park, the island refuge was renamed in 1971 for J. Norwood Darling . The nationally syndicated and well-known political cartoonist in the first half of the century, Darling went by the name"Ding" and lived at a seasonal retreat that he built on Captiva Island next door to Sanibel Island.

Darling's devotion to conservation showed in his drawings and won him a short-term appointment in 1934 as the federal official over refuges, which were at that time in the Department of Agriculture. He is perhaps most remembered for the implementation of the Duck Stamp Bill and his drawing of the first Duck Stamp. His accomplishments, however, go much further. Through his efforts, the sale of state-owned land on Sanibel to developers was delayed, making it possible for the refuge to be established as he wanted.

Sanibel Island was reached by ferry before the 3-mile bridge and causeway were built in 1973 after 3 years of controversy and despite the objections of a united organization. As a result, Sanibel became a city in 1974, and the island was freed from the more economic-oriented Lee County, which issued more building permits on Sanibel in one week in 1973 than in all of 1972. The city of Sanibel, says manager Hinds, reveres the refuge, provides support when it is needed, and is glad to have the refuge staff caretake"their" refuge. In fact, agreements are being negotiated that will give the refuge management authority over additional mangrove areas owned by the city as well as the state and a private conservation foundation.


The ever-present wildlife on the 5-mile Wildlife Drive is what makes the refuge so popular, especially during the fall and winter months. The drive offers excellent viewing of tidal mudflats, mangrove forests, and two expansive water-controlled impoundments, originally constructed for mosquito control. Over 230 species of birds have been recorded on the refuge, and 110 species are tallied in Christmas bird counts. The refuge also has 50 species of reptiles and amphibians and 32 mammals. Wading birds are conspicuous including wood storks, white ibis, yellow-crowned night herons, and reddish, great, and snowy egrets. As many as a third of the U.S. population of the striking roseate spoonbills can be in the refuge at times. The mudflats can be covered with shorebirds including Wilson's plovers, American oyster catchers, and blacknecked stilts in season. Waterfowl are present during winter, although numbers are declining, thought to be the result of problematic salinity increases in the brackish impoundments.

Sharper eyes will see in the thicket cover eastern flycatchers, warblers, tanagers, orioles, and buntings during spring and fall migrations. Osprey nestbuilding in January on a platform near the drive can create a frenzy of whirring cameras by excited photographers.

The marshy areas near the end of the drive will reveal common moorhens and, except during hot months, American alligators basking in the sun. An 11-foot American crocodile also likes to bask on Wildlife Drive in an area that had to be roped off because unwary people were getting too close.


For people who want to see wildlife on foot, the refuge has 2-mile Indigo Trail, starting at the Visitor Center, and half-mile Shell Mound Trail, starting near the end of Wildlife Drive. This loop trail through mangroves is a good place to see warblers during spring migration. Over 1 and 3/4 miles of trails are on the separate 100-acre Bailey Tract, where smooth-billed ants, alligators, herons, and egrets may be seen.

Two canoe trails -miles on the Buck Key unit and 2-miles on the main refuge—take wildlife viewers through red mangrove forests. Tarpon Bay is also an excellent spot for observing wildlife, including manatees. Rental canoes are available for exploring the bay, but visitors may also provide their own.

Preserving The Habitat for Wildlife

Wildlife, however, can only take so much close-up viewing from so many viewers. Hinds says that the popularity of this showcase refuge is causing people to love it to death.

Several years ago when asked whether he had any public uses that were incompatible with wildlife, he produced a list longer than that by any other refuge. It included wildlife observation, photography, hiking, cycling, birding, mosquito control, and commercial fishing. According to Hinds, the whole refuge had been literally opened to anybody for anything except hunting, which had never been allowed. Hinds and his staff were determined to solve the compatibility issues through regulation, and they are doing so. Although they complained, crabbers are no longer allowed to enter the impoundments.

No authority existed to ban commercial fishers from Tarpon Bay, where grass beds important to manatees were being tom up, but the disturbance was reduced by establishing a slow speed limit for boats. The state assisted by requiring all net-setting to be from nonmotorized pole skiffs.

Buses and mopeds were eliminated from Wildlife Drive, and all traffic is prohibited on Fridays. These actions stemmed from a refuge research project on wildlife disturbance commissioned by a former manager. Propane powered tram tours, now provided by a concessionaire, will be expanded when more planned parking space becomes available and will operate solely from the new Visitor Center being planned.

A refuge law enforcement officer is now on the staff but was told by Hinds,"Don't write tickets unless you have to. If people are doing something wrong, educate them." Volunteer "rovers" are also on Wildlife Drive helping visitors with questions about the refuge and identification of bird and other wildlife.

The volunteer program was started in earnest at about the time the Visitor Center opened in 1982 and the crush of people overwhelmed the small refuge staff. In a recent year, 144 volunteer workers donated over 13,000 hours helping with interpretive programs in schools and at the refuge, staffing the Visitor Center, and serving as rovers.

In furthering education at the refuge, one low-powered radio station beams general information and invites a first stop at the Visitor enter. Another gives a message specific to Wildlife Drive. The resulting 80 percent increase in visitors stopping at the Visitor Center is welcomed because it has reduced the number of uninformed visitors who go out on their own.

But greater use of the Visitor Center only magnified another problem: a woeful lack of space. The floor area is little more than that of a large home, and yet as many 1500 persons a day have to be accommodated. The refuge staff must even wait in line with others just to use the rest rooms.

A New Visitor Center

After 7 years of failed attempts for federal funding of a new visitor center, the Ding Darling Wildlife Society decided to take the matter into its own hands and raise the $2 million to build and equip a new center. The 3-year fund-raising campaign is currently in its second year.

The society operates under agreement as a cooperating association to raise funds through sales at its retail shop in the Visitor Center and through donations and to pay for projects that are mutually agreed upon. It is one of the most successful refuge associations in the nation and contributes to the refuge about $40,000 each year.

Begun in 1982, the society funded the refuge radio stations, buys vests and causeway toll tickets for volunteers and loaner binoculars for students and visitors, publishes refuge maps and pamphlets in English and foreign languages, and paid for the new Education Pavilion recently constructed on the short Cross Dike Trail near the beginning of Wildlife Drive.

The pavilion is used by school groups as an outdoor classroom and by the Rovers as an information center. Forty percent of the society's members live throughout the United States and in several foreign nations. The annual October celebration of Darling's birthday is a regular society activity that is held jointly with the refuge. The 1995 celebration marked the 50th anniversary of the refuge founding as well and included featured speaker Kip Koss, Darling's grandson and president of the J.N. "Ding" Darling Foundation.

Innocently signing on as a refuge volunteer in 1987 with a friend, Marilyn Kloosterman soon found herself treasurer of the society and currently serves as its president. Her background as a high school teacher of business and her knowledge of computers made her a prime candidate for roles as officer in the robust society. Under her leadership, money from local and national sources is being sought for the new Visitor Center, the society's biggest ever undertaking.

But Kloosterman is justly proud of two other accomplishments: initiating the first national cooperative association workshop in Tampa in 1994, an event so successful that FWS plans to hold one every year, and inventing the Junior Duck Stamp program.

As part of its environmental education effort, the society held a contest in which the best duck drawing by elementary school children was selected. The idea became so popular that it led to the 1994 Junior Duck Stamp legislation that authorizes National Junior Duck Stamp Contests.

The Future & Expansion

The future of the Ding Darling Refuge rests in large part on the inclusion of another 2300 acres of land and water. The proposed expansion has fresh-water marshes, mangrove forests, hardwood hammocks, and estuarine bays.

Because most of the additions would be by donation and management agreements, only 153 acres need to be outright purchases. One such purchase involving 5 acres for more visitor parking, a necessity for increased tram use and reduced Wildlife Drive traffic, will also likely be a donation from the local school district.

Nearly 1000 acres of water area including Tarpon Bay were made subject to a recent joint management agreement with Florida giving the refuge greater law enforcement authority in areas used by manatees and by birds for rookeries. Other pending agreements will lead to water-control solutions for salinity and depth problems in the refuge western impoundment.

Management of visitor crowds is certain to continue as high a priority for Ding Darling NWR managers as is the management of prime wildlife habitat.

The original objective to plan for an ultimate 1.5 million annual visitors is to be abandoned. Inasmuch as current visitor numbers reach nearly half that level, it is clear to both refuge staff and friends that a doubling cannot be accommodated.

The objective now is to concentrate on maintaining a quality experience for visitors while avoiding wildlife disturbances, a job that Hinds is demonstrating can be done but only with additional changes such as those already implemented.

Refuge visitors who are serious observers or photographers may find close-up viewing made difficult by walkers and cyclists on Wildlife Drive, who flush birds from their feeding areas, but viewing opportunities still abound, and a visit to Ding Darling NWR is a must for casual and serious refuge visitors alike.

As visitation policies need to be adjusted in the future, the surrounding community will likely be quick to support them. As FWS stated, "The city of Sanibel and its residents realize that the island's rich natural resources are a major attraction which brings tourists to the area. Because tourism is the major industry of the island, perpetuating the natural-resource charm of the island is important to the local economy."

Directions And Information

Ding Darling NWR—From the intersection of FL-687 and US-41 in Fort Myers, west on FL-687 (McGregor Boulevard) for 12 miles to toll booth at Punta Rosa, across 3.4-mile causeway, right on Periwinkle Way, slight right on Palm Ridge Road for approximately 5 miles to refuge entrance on right.

Wildlife Drive is open from sunrise to sunset every day of the year except Fridays. The tram normally makes two trips a day (except on Fridays) and leaves from the Tarpon Bay parking lot in winter and the Visitor Center parking lot in summer. The refuge entrance fee is $4 per car, and tram tickets are $8 for adults, $4 for children ($1 goes to new Visitor Center fund, and $1 is for entrance fee). Canoe rentals are available at the Tarpon Bay parking lot. Fall, winter, and spring are the best times to visit. Birders will also enjoy summer visits, but should bring insect repellent. Motor-home parking is available at only one facility on Sanibel Island, but advance reservation is necessary (941-472-1433). Membership in the Ding Darling Wildlife Society is $12 for individuals and $17 for families. Mail payment to the refuge address.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 26 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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