Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge's 7.5-mile Wildlife Drive finally completed

American white pelicans on the Shiawassee refuge

by Janet I. Martineau
Ten years in the making .... it is finally finished.
The 7.5-mile Wildlife Drive through the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, on Curtis Road off M13,  was completed the week before Christmas, reports refuge manager Steven Kahl. It will officially open in mid-April.
“It was the most requested thing our visitors wanted,” Kahl told a recent “Nurturing Nature” audience at the refuge’s Green Point Environmental Learning Center facility. The refuge receives upwards of 60,000 visitors in a year, 63 percent of them from outside Saginaw County.
And with the project comes a new parking lot by an existing observation blind, so people can get out and hike on the nearby designated hiking trails; a new observation platform by the Shiawassee River, a ripe area for shore and marsh birds, and an ADA-compliant remake of the Grefe tower.
Also along its path are wetland, marsh and prairie habitat restoration projects which are  ongoing as the refuge evolves from its cropland roots to a wider diversity of habitat. 
“We want to add more things on the route in the future,” Kahl said, “like interpretive signs to explain how the refuge operates;  how we mange its system and because of that how it will look different from one year to the next over a six-year management cycle.
Bald eagle on the Shiawassee Refuge
“If a place like Shiawassee remains static, it does not work for wildlife. Ducks need a healthy wetland even more than water. 
“Wetlands are dynamic, the highs and lows all serve a purpose. They are not wet all the time; droughts are an important part of wetland vitality. Cracked mud excites me. Volumes and volumes of seeds are there waiting (to spring forth). The new plants grow, and the seeds on them ripen during fall migration, giving the birds their energy to fly. ”
As for wildlife, visitors can expect to see rare and declining birds, sand hill cranes, American white pelicans, coyote, whitetail deer, muskrat, bald eagles, reptiles and turtles.
The $3.3 million project will open the core of the 9,501-acre refuge to visitors on a daily basis six month of the year. Up until now, visitors had to hike two miles to get into that core or show up for one day in the spring and one day in the fall when the drive was open to cars.
“People for the most part did not get to see what makes Shiawassee a really special place more than that once or twice a year. The road -- which was not built as a road but as a dike -- just could not support any more traffic than on those two days. A half-inch of rain would cause all sorts of driving ills. The sides of the road were eroding. ”
What the project did, says Kahl, was enhance that route. What took so long was the design, obtaining a long list of permits,  and the massive engineering and equipment needs that reshaped the slopes of the dike, added material to shore up the sides, and created layers of  gravel and mesh to distribute the weight of cars and even buses as well as prevent rutting from rain.
“I see puddles in roads a whole lot differently now, having been through this process,” says Kahl, noting that often 18- to 24-inches of the existing dike roadbed was removed and rebuilt,  and in some places even 3 feet. “What water puddles do to a road is weaken it over time. Everything we did was to sustain vehicular pressure and decrease maintenance.”
The free Wildlife Drive will have limitations applied. Among them: 
--  Since the refuge is first and foremost a wildlife sanctuary, in particular for migrating birds, the wildlife drive will only be open mid-April through mid-October of each year to avoid stressing them during their peak travel times. That and snow removal in the winter would tax the refuge staff and budget.
“We will be closed when the species that are the most sensitive need the refuge the most. We also plan to have one-day or one-evening special events here and there, like being able to see the short-eared owls in winter. And even during our open season we could have to close occasionally because high water is creating a safety hazard (to the humans).”
--  The speed limit is 15, in hopes of saving the lives of snakes, turtles, muskrats and other small critters who also use the roadbed. “Road mortality is an issue we are concerned about,” says Kahl.
--   Other than in the designated the parking areas, drivers and their passengers are required to stay inside their cars. Kahl says for some reason, wildlife does not see vehicles as a threat; they serve as a blind. But the minute people get out of them wildlife anxiety noticeably increases.
“The more people stay in their cars the more the wildlife will stay nearby and people can see it. People cannot just stop and go off walking willy nilly.”
Shiawassee is one of 553 federal wildlife refuges in a system begun in 1903, by President Theodore Roosevelt. That system maintains 150 million acres, more than the national park service.
Shiawassee was established in 1953. It is not unusual that in its peak use, in the spring and fall, 40,000 ducks are there in a day and 25,000 Canada geese.
It shelters, Kahl says, 280 species of birds,  25 species of mammals, 10 species of reptiles, 10 species  amphibians, 48 species of fish, 300 species of insects, snails and mussels, and  300 species of plants.
Kahl says in 2006, the refuge created $1 million in economic activity for Saginaw County, a number he expects to increase significantly with the new wildlife drive.
Log on to for a look at the Wildlife Drive route, outlined in yellow.


  1. This is wonderful. I hope the visitors support it. How lucky we are.

  2. I was at Steve's presentation and really learned a lot and enjoyed all the information and wonderful pictures. Looking forward to using this new road come Spring.
    Sue C