Published June 22, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Wyoming refuge is a treasure hidden in plain sight.”
By Barb Gorges
In early June, Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge birds are busy reproducing. They barely notice birders.
The refuge is southwest of Laramie. It’s small by national refuge standards, just under 2,000 acres, and relatively unknown, compared to others in Wyoming like Seedskadee or the National Elk Refuge.
Hutton Lake has little to offer people: no visitor center, no restrooms, no picnic tables, no fishing, no hunting, no camping, no off-road vehicles, horses or dogs allowed anywhere, no trees, no dramatic landscape, and no decent road–until recently.
Instead, it caters to wildlife, attracting 29 mammal species, six amphibian and reptile species and 146 kinds of birds, including 60 species that have been known to nest there.
What do avian visitors find at Hutton Lake?
Five small lakes, including namesake Hutton, have a variety of wet habitats—shallow water for puddle ducks and wading birds, deeper water for diving ducks, muddy shores for shorebirds and thick reed beds for nesting. On land, there are greasewood thickets perfect for nesting songbirds like the sage thrashers. The short grass of the surrounding plains, as green as a golf course this spring, will have its share of bird nests on the ground—grassland species do without trees.
The comparatively flat (the Snowy Range glimmers in the distance) and nearly featureless topography of the Laramie River Valley does have a few rocky outcrops and ridges. The astute birder will find eagles and hawks perched on them, or soaring overhead.
Hutton is part of a complex
Ann Timberman is the project manager for the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Hutton Lake and two other small refuges nearby but which are closed to the public because of endangered species work. There’s also Pathfinder near Casper, and Arapaho, the main refuge, is where the complex’s headquarters are located, outside Walden, Colo.
In some ways, Ann’s job, which she’s had for 10 years now, is easy. The National Wildlife Refuge System doesn’t have to manage for multiple, and often conflicting, uses like the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service. Its mission is to benefit wildlife. Hutton Lake was established in 1932 “to provide resting and breeding habitat.” Livestock grazing permits are available only in years when it’s been determined it will benefit wildlife.
Ann and I toured Hutton Lake together June 2 on a wonderfully windless day. Bringing along the spotting scope did not make for the most efficient interview—we kept losing our conversational focus while focusing on the differences in field marks for immature bald and golden eagles and other birdwatching matters.
The tour was to show off improvements made last year, the biggest being the roadwork, tons of gravel filling the deep ruts I remembered from my last visit. The road improvement also extends to the two-track across state land, between Sand Creek Road, which is the closest county road, and the boundary of the refuge.
Even a small car with minimal clearance can navigate the single lane road, as we found when we saw one at the new gravel parking spot at the end of the road.
One improvement was unglamorous, but very expensive—replacing the infrastructure that regulates the flow of water from one of the lakes to another.
This summer, an interpretive trail and observation platform will be built at one of the lakes.
There’s a birdwatching blind now, too, built last year by an Eagle Scout candidate, with funding for materials provided by Laramie Audubon Society.
I went out again to Hutton five days later with some of the chapter members on a field trip. As much as they appreciate the improved road, they are a little sad to lose vehicle access to some of the roads that are now for pedestrians only. Tim Banks, trip leader, pointed out that some of their older chapter members are not going to be hiking in to regain closer views of the lakes.
Laramie Audubon members are just about the only regular visitors and the only interest group which keeps tabs on the refuge. They worked to have it designated as a Wyoming Important Bird Area.
Partnerships benefit wildlife
In fact, two bird lovers, Gere and Barbara Kruse, were responsible for the recent improvements. In their memory, their daughter, Babs, brought $42,000 to Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, asking for help finding an appropriate wildlife/public use habitat project in Albany County.
The Trust matched the donation. Laramie Rivers Conservation District’s Martin Curry, resource specialist, wrote the grant and oversaw most of the work. Other cooperators were the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the refuge, as well as its parent agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A total of $111,000 will have been spent when improvements are finished.
There are drawbacks to having a better road. Back in January, kids started a fire even though fires are not allowed, and it got out of control. Thankfully, the refuge is on local law enforcement’s beat and Albany County firefighters put it out. Ann decided to lock the gate for the winter, allowing only walk-in access.
With only 3.5 staff members for the whole Arapaho refuge complex, locals become Ann’s eyes and ears at Hutton Lake. There are few birds and few people on the windswept plains in winter. But, for instance, deciding when in spring to open the gate will depend on local birders apprising her of conditions. Visitors can also report suspicious or illegal activities–impossible to hide on the open plains.
For Ann, from a management perspective, making the refuge more accessible is a double-edged sword of sorts, allowing in vandals as well as visitors. But, she said, in the long run, it pays to make friends and develop partnerships. In this case, sharing Hutton Lake with people who appreciate it benefits the wildlife. And that fits the refuge’s mission.
If you go
The refuge is open to driving on established roads as conditions permit, and to hiking on roads and trails year round. Wildlife watching and photography are the recreational activities allowed. Spring, especially April, is a great time for birdwatching.
There is no drinking water and no restroom. Please pack out trash. Hunting, shooting, fishing, fires and camping are not permitted.
How to get there
From Laramie, drive south on U.S. 287. When the huge cement plant comes up on your right less than two miles south of I-80, aim for the plant’s front office using one of the crossroads, but instead of entering the plant, veer left (south) and you will be on Sand Creek Road. After about 8 miles you will see a brown sign for Hutton Lake pointing to the right. Turn and follow the gravel trail to the refuge entrance, which is marked by a large sign and a small parking area.
More information is available at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/hutton_lake/.