By Kathy Erickson
On March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside tiny Pelican Island on Florida's east coast as the first national wildlife refuge. Since then, this one island monitored by one man in one small boat has grown into a vast network of federal lands consisting of more that 535 refuges and covering more than 94 million acres across the United States and its territories, an area about the size of Montana.
Although the National Wildlife Refuge System is dedicated specifically to wildlife conservation, these lands are also set aside for people in an attempt to protect the nation's wild heritage.
More than 35 million Americans visit refuges each year to enjoy outdoor experiences like hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, hiking and environmental education. More than 30,000 volunteers and 200 refuge community partnerships help preserve the land and build understanding of its value to society.
As Theodore Roosevelt said, "Wild beasts and birds are by right not the property merely of the people who are alive today, but the property of unknown generations, whose belongings we have no right to squander."
Congress has declared the year 2003 as "The Year of the National Wildlife Refuge." Across the nation, programs, ceremonies and activities will be taking place at many refuges to celebrate the National Wildlife Refuge System centennial.
Nationwide programs include commemorative postage stamps, books and calendars, celebrity public service announcements, television documentaries, a Smithsonian Institute exhibit, and internment of centennial time capsules.
People can get involved in the celebration by visiting the refuges. Blue Goose Passport books are available at many refuges to keep track of travels.
On March 14, every staffed refuge will hold a birthday celebration and the public is welcome.
But if you don't feel like traveling far from home, you're in luck. One of the finest migratory bird refuges in North America is in your own back yard. Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge is 7 miles east of Malta on Old Highway 2.
Although Bowdoin is small in size compared to the 19.2 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and doesn't see quite as many visitors as the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, with more than 1.5 million per year, it is significant for its value to wildlife. Established in 1936, this 15,550-acre refuge provides habitat for more than 260 species of birds, more than 26 species of mammals, and a variety of reptiles, amphibians and fish.
Bowdoin has many special features, including a 15-mile auto tour route, a handicap-accessible hunting blind and an accessible nature trail. There are no entrance or use fees at Bowdoin. And with the upcoming centennial celebration, there will be plenty of reasons to visit.
Here is a rundown of what will be happening at Bowdoin in the next year and a half:
On Aug. 1, entries are due for the Centennial Quilt Square Contest. The public is invited to view the squares at the refuge booth at the Phillips County Fair and vote for a favorite design. Prizes for the top three entries will include gift certificates and Chamber bucks donated by local business, plus birding field guides and National Wildlife Refuge System memorabilia. The first place square will be sent to the regional office in Denver to be included in the Region 6 centennial quilt, which will be part of a traveling display. The remaining entries will be combined to form a Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge quilt which will be displayed at the refuge, Phillips County Museum and various statewide events. Entry forms and contest guidelines are available at Shyla's Sew Crafty in Malta, the Plaid Square in Glasgow, and at Bowdoin.
On Aug. 10, there will be a guided shorebird tour from 8 a.m. until noon. Participants will gather at the refuge headquarters, where wildlife biologist Fritz Prellwitz will begin the tour. Bowdoin is part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, which recognizes the area's importance to migrating, breeding, nesting and feeding shorebirds.
Oct. 14-18 is National Wildlife Refuge Week. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the handicap-accessible Display Pond Trail will take place that week. This short loop trail will feature a picnic area and an overlook platform, allowing visitors an excellent view of the pond and its wildlife inhabitants. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with Ducks Unlimited Inc. and area businesses to make the project possible.
In November, Bowdoin will host a wildlife art contest for all local elementary and high school students. Professional artists from Montana will choose the top three entries in each age category and the public will have a chance to choose its favorites as well. Contest guidelines and prizes will be announced in September.
A 100-year birthday celebration will be held at Bowdoin on March 14. Birthday cake and other refreshments will be served, door prizes will be given away, and all of the items that will go into the refuge's time capsule will be on display. The public is invited to donate items like area photos, stories, business cards, historic memorabilia. The capsule will be opened in 2103. The time capsule will be interred at a later date.
Many more special activities will be held at Bowdoin next year.
For more information on Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge and any of the centennial events, contact Kathy Erickson at (406)654-2863 or visit the Web site at http://bowdoin.fws.gov.