Respecting all species at the refuge

Winter at the Parker River Wildlife Refuge is not truly a quiet season and while wildlife viewing opportunities abound, they must be balanced with the health and wellbeing of the animals.

Barred Owl by Justin Wei on Unsplash
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Editor’s note: This is one in a continuing series of guest opinions about fostering environmental stewardship and leadership coordinatedby ACES — The Alliance of Climate and Environmental Stewards.

As temperatures fall and snow-cones give way to snowstorms, many visitors wonder how exactly the staff at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge occupy our time in the absence of piping plovers and eager beachgoers. Well, if you’ve visited recently, you’ve likely encountered crowd sizes more frequently associated with the hot summer months.

Among the throngs are wildlife enthusiasts and photographers in a frenzy over the refuge’s charismatic and highly photogenic residents. Namely, a pair of barred owls and a pack of coyotes. We need to ask the public to enjoy a magical moment with these icons of the refuge and then continue your journey to experience one of the refuge’s other recreational opportunities.

The refuge’s primary mission is to conserve and protect wildlife and their habitats. When visitation pressures compromise that mission, we are obligated to intervene. We are fortunate to live and work in a place of unmatched beauty and biodiversity, and I have high confidence that our shared passion for conservation will allow all of us to enjoy these unique wildlife encounters in a responsible and ethical manner. But the reality is the Parker River refuge, with its relative ease of access and year-round wildlife viewing opportunities, never truly has a quiet season. Instead, we see different crowds of user groups shifting along with the seasons and available recreational opportunities. We have huge array of species, some resident year-round and many migratory. It’s this biodiversity that is a big part of visitor interest.

The refuge provides unique habitat for these many species who may struggle to survive in nearby areas of dense human development. However, we have recently seen these animals exhibiting a high degree of comfort with humans and unusual levels of activity during broad daylight. These behaviors may increase viewing opportunities for human visitors, but they also contribute to roadside traffic jams and increased potential for wildlife disturbance. Combined, these elements detract from the high-quality refuge that our resident wildlife require to thrive.

One common misconception we hear from visitors is that if an animal doesn’t flee, then it is not disturbed by the presence of nearby humans. A growing field of research reveals this to be false. By remaining close to an animal for an extended period of time, or by following it from location to location, humans often cause the animal to experience elevated stress levels and increased heart rate. Both responses are invisible to the human eye but may negatively affect the animal’s long-term health and reproductive success.

Consider this impact on our resident barred owls. While barred owls primarily rest during the day and hunt at night and twilight, some opportunistically hunt at other times. This has been observed with the barred owls at Parker River. Yet, it is impossible for us to know if they are truly displaying opportunistic hunting behaviors or forced to remain vigilant during critical resting periods due to the close proximity of photographers and other wildlife watchers. Further, crowds of visitors may deter smaller prey such as rabbits and voles from coming within striking distance. For this reason, we ask that visitors not only keep their distance and minimize noise disturbance, but also move on quickly from these encounters.

We’d love to see you soon at the refuge and when you join us please tread lightly and quietly and thus allow the wildlife to thrive.

Matt Hillman is project leader at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

Our Youth Corps asks that if you care about issues like these and would like to learn more and possibly do a bit more or have any questions, please send an email to acesnewburyport@gmail. com. To learn more about ACES and its Initiatives, visit https://www.aces-alliance. org.

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about the author
Matt Hillman

Matt Hillman is the Project Leader of Parker River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex, which includes four refuges from the rocky shores of Gloucester, MA to the Monadnock region of New Hampshire. Matt came to Parker River from Monomoy NWR in Chatham, MA, in 2020. He lives in Exeter, NH with his wife, 3 & 5 year old sons, and a loveable rescue dog.

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