By Al Lindeman
This is truly an urban wildlife refuge. Located about 10 miles northeast of downtown Denver, it is bordered by housing on the south and west and Pena Boulevard (to DIA) on the east. The 15,000-acre Refuge contains 20 miles of hiking trails and an eleven-mile paved wildlife drive that usually provides photo opportunities for bison and mule deer and occasional opportunities for the over 300 other varieties of wildlife in the Refuge. Iconic photos of bison and mule deer with the tall buildings of downtown Denver in the background can be obtained from the wildlife drive.
The Refuge is located at 6550 Gateway Road, Commerce City, CO 80022. It is open from sunrise to sunset daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day – it also closes at 12:30 pm on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The visitor’s center is open from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm Wednesday through Sunday (303 289 0232). First time visitors to the Refuge will benefit from a visit to the visitor’s center to obtain an orientation to the Refuge.
The Refuge has a unique history. In 1942 the U.S. Army bought 17,000 acres of prairie farmland to establish a chemical weapons manufacturing facility. Evidence of former farms can still be seen in the Refuge. Portions of the Refuge were later used by Shell Chemical Company to produce herbicides and agricultural pesticides. The area became highly contaminated. All manufacturing activities ended in the 1980s. At that point a decision about what to do with the land became necessary. It was discovered that the area had a large winter population of bald eagles (an endangered species at the time) and a sizeable population of mule deer. Efforts to declare the area a national wildlife refuge were successfully concluded in 1992. $2.1 billion was subsequently spent cleaning up the site. Responsibility for management of the Refuge was given to the national Fish and Wildlife Service.
Sixteen bison were introduced into the Refuge in 2007. The herd grew to over 80 and it was decided that the Refuge could sustain only about 60. So, every year bison are donated to other federal facilities and Native American organizations. While bison are the biggest (no pun intended) draw at the Refuge, many other species including raptors, mule deer, coyotes, raccoons, black-footed ferrets, black-tailed prairie dogs, burrowing owls, and migratory waterfowl provide ample photo opportunities.
This short article hardly does justice to this great urban treasure. It is a resource all Denver area wildlife photographers should utilize. For more information, visit the Refuge’s website: fws.gov/refuge/rocky-mountain-arsenal.