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New Arsenal Wildlife Refuge Plan Means Expanded Access (And Ferrets!)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A bison stands with the city of Denver in the distance at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge sits just northeast of Denver. Inside the refuge's 16,000 acres, bison roam and prairie dogs scamper in view of a professional soccer league stadium and the Denver skyline.

The refuge opened the doors to its visitor center in 2011. Since then, visitors numbers have skyrocketed, said David Lucas, who manages the refuge for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Last year we had over 300,000 visitors."

Before long, he expects that number to reach a million a year. In response, the refuge is putting together a plan to open new areas to the public and continue improving the habitat for wildlife. 

The refuge's history is one of transformation. In 1941, after bombs were dropped on Pearl Harbor, the area became a chemical weapons manufacturing facility, aiding the war effort. In 1987 it was declared a Superfund site.

In the meantime, animals had discovered it. A pair of bald eagles, then an endangered species, were discovered there in the 1980s. Federal officials quickly found the site's lack of development had made it a haven for area wildlife.

As Superfund cleanup progressed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped the Army prepare for the sites eventual conversion into a wildlife refuge. In 2007, the Service introduced a herd of bison.

Now, the communities around the refuge are seeking better access. In preparation for writing the new plan, the refuge met with community members, Lucas said.

"One of the things we heard loud and clear is that it is difficult to access the refuge. Currently our neighbors, depending on where you live might have to drive 15 to 20 miles just to get in our front gate."

Credit Kimberly Tamkun / USFWS
A Black-footed Ferret, pictured here in 2012 in the outside pens at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Northern Colorado.

The proposed plan calls for more entrances that connect with existing biking and walking trails. It will also give the public more access to the entire area.

Lucas said another goal is bringing in more native species. If the plan is approved, they hope to start releasing black-footed ferrets, an endangered species, as early as fall 2015.

The first goal remains protecting the wildlife, even as more visitors come to enjoy the sights, said Lucas.

"I would say that's the number one challenge for us, is how does a land management agency protect what's important and what people want to come see, while also opening the doors to more people?" 

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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