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What's Up Magazine

Wild, Wild Life

Jan 10, 2018 03:17PM ● By Caley Breese

Photo by Nicole Gould

Located at the end of a mile-and-a-half driveway in Laurel sits the National Wildlife Visitor Center and the main entry point to the Patuxent Research Refuge. You may have driven through this area without even realizing it, as Route 197 runs through a portion of the area, connecting Laurel and Bowie. Additionally, the Patuxent River and the Little Patuxent River both run through the Refuge.
The Patuxent Research Refuge’s size is just under 13,000 acres and is located in two counties: Anne Arundel and Prince George’s. It is divided into three zones: the North Tract, the Central Tract, and the South Tract; however, only the North and South Tracts are open to the public. The Central Tract is designated for the offices of the Patuxent Research Refuge, as well as the study site for the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a unit within the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The Refuge consists of forests, meadows, and wetlands, and serves as a haven for a significant number of wildlife species. It is the only refuge out of 550 in the National Wildlife Refuge System designed solely for wildlife research.

Photo by Nicole Gould


Background and History 

The Patuxent Research Refuge was established in 1936 by the Executive Order of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, it is overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, another agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Refuge partners with the USGS for the research and protection of wildlife.

“Patuxent’s purpose is unique in the supporting research,” says Brad Knudsen, Refuge Manager. “A lot of refuges go forth and do good things for migratory birds [and] over 10 percent of the refuges that exist were established to support a specific endangered species. Patuxent’s was to provide a function—provide a research site for wildlife-related research.” 

According to Knudsen, initial research focused on wildlife-friendly agricultural practices, waterfowl, and wetland management. Environmental contaminants and pesticide impacts on the landscape were also researched early on, particularly the pesticide DDT. A revolutionary study led by Patuxent researchers was published in 1969 about the adverse effects of DDT, and how harmful it is to agriculture, wildlife, and humans. In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned its use.

Between 1991 and 1992, the Refuge acquired 8,100 more acres, and developed what is now known as the North Tract. From 1917 to 1991, this area was part of Fort George G. Meade and was used for military training. Upon visiting the North Tract of the refuge, you are required to first check in with the Visitor Contact Station.

“The North Tract requires an access pass because of the military history and the presence of unexploded ordnance,” Knudsen explains. “So we need to educate everyone. We have them sign in; read basically a waiver that they understand that there’s ordnance. If they see it, they know to recognize, retreat, and report—those are the three ‘Rs.’ So people have to check in and have to check out.”  While no one has ever had an ordnance-related injury, the proper precautions need to be taken, explains Knudsen. 

Photo by Nicole Gould

"We’re trying to keep native species in place as much as possible." -Brad Knudsen

Environmental Awareness

Concern for visitors and its indigenous wildlife goes hand in hand with the Patuxent Research Refuge’s commitment to conserving and protecting the environment. Knudsen says education is key and to that end, the Refuge offers many year-round workshops and programs for students. These field trip programs present hands-on activities for students and educators on a variety of environmental topics.

Management of the property is also vitally important, Knudsen explains. “We’re trying to control invasive species where we can. We’re trying to keep native species in place as much as possible.” Deer numbers are kept in check, he says, through the use of controlled hunting. 
“When the deer [numbers] are too high, they eat themselves out of house and home. That affects not just plants and vegetation, but ground-nesting birds [because] they lose their ground coverage when the deer eat it.”

Patuxent Research Refuge also leads by example advocating for environmental-friendly changes that we can make at home.

“Another area would be our sustainability practices—recycling, solar panels, programmable thermostats in all of our major buildings, energy-efficient lighting, very reduced lighting at night,” Knudsen explains. “We’ve saved a lot of energy the last couple of years with our solar panels. It probably cut our energy costs—and that pretty much equates to the conservation of energy—by about 60 percent or more in this building [the National Wildlife Visitor Center] which is significant.”

Photo by Nicole Gould


What Can I Experience as a Visitor?

With approximately 250,000 visits annually, there is no shortage of activities at the Patuxent Research Refuge. From exploring the Visitor Center to hunting deep into the forest, the refuge offers an abundance of fun, interesting experiences along the two visitor tracts.

The South Tract is where the National Wildlife Visitor Center is located. There, visitors can learn and engage with various exhibits, such as an interactive kiosk that allows users to find information on the many different species found in the refuge and surrounding areas. There are also environmental exhibits that shine a light on global concerns, habitats, and there’s even a viewing pod where you can observe wildlife in real time. Check out the auditorium for educational films. 

As for outdoor activities, a guided tram tour is accessible through the National Wildlife Visitor Center, which takes riders on a half-hour outing through the forest, meadow, and wetlands of the Refuge. Visitors are also able to hike among the many different trails at the South Tract, such as the Cash Lake and Fire Road Trail. When you go hiking, don’t forget your camera! Photography is welcomed and very popular among tourists. Fishing is also available on Cash Lake during the season which is set to conclude on October 8th this year. Don’t forget to have your fishing permit handy (available through Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources).

Although the North and South Tracts are contiguous, the North Tract has a few different features in terms of what to do there. There are several different trails that folks can wander that have multiple uses, including Forest Trail, a more secluded two-and-a-half mile loop, as well as Little Patuxent River Trail, which takes hikers past the scenic Little Patuxent River. Guests are also allowed to bicycle or go horseback riding on designated trails at the North Tract. Fishing is available year-round in Lake Allen, New Marsh, Cattail Pond, Rieve’s Pond, Blue Heron Pond, Bailey Bridge Marsh, and the Little Patuxent River; however, there may be some exceptions. Additionally, the bulk of the available hunting is done at the North Tract. Hunting is allowed during the Maryland State hunting season, typically from September through January. There are select days in April and May where hunters can come out and search for wild turkey. Please note that a valid hunting permit is required.

Photo by Todd Breese

"Just a good time of year after a hot, humid summer to come out and hike the trails and do some bird-watching, enjoy the fall colors. Just come out and relax."

When you visit the Patuxent Research Refuge, be on the lookout for some of the interesting creatures and habitats. From mammals to amphibians and reptiles, the refuge serves as a haven for vast majority of wildlife. 

“If you’re going to come out here, the one critter that you’re most likely going to see is…I’d say it’s between a white-tailed deer, great blue heron, or a Canada goose,” Knudsen says. 

Among those animals, there are also wood ducks, American toads, salamanders, Eastern box turtles, scarlet tanagers, various wood warblers, and many others. There is also a pair of bald eagles on the property.

Of course, fall visitors can enjoy all the splendid seasonal foliage that the Refuge has to offer, making it one of the more popular seasons to explore, Knudsen says.