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Are bicycles appropriate in National Wildlife Refuges?

Experiences on wildlife refuges with waterfowl and other wildlife.

By Terry Heslin, former staff with Arizona State Parks

My experience of USF&W refuge management and bicycles would suggest that the refuges may be subject to situational management, depending on the needs of wildlife and their habitat. I hope that this is the case.

Northern California has several refuges along the Sacramento River Valley that provide for thousands of migratory waterfowl as well as other wildlife. I frequently visited the one near Chico/Willows. At the time (late 1980's) there was a visitor's center and a self-guided auto tour. Bird watchers were instructed (recommendation, not strict prohibition, I think) to stay in vehicles--because the critters don't recognize Dodge Caravans as predators, but pedestrians cause alarm and flight behavior. Periodically, there were blinds where people could observe, photograph, and sometimes hunt.

I frequently rode my mountain bike along the canals that are everywhere in that valley. Once, I rode the auto tour route along the gravel path in the refuge. The regulations for visitors were posted at the visitor's center and along the tour route. I recall regulations/recommendations discouraging hiking in some areas, but nothing addressed bicycles. The time I rode the route, I noted that my presence on a bicycle had much more (than when I went to bird watch from a vehicle) of a disturbing effect on the birds. As I rode, flocks of birds would take flight, and this had a rippling effect which caused more birds to flush and orbit until they saw that I'd passed.

After that experience, I decided that it was not appropriate for me to ride my bike in the wildlife refuge-- because of the site specific circumstances. This was a wetland that was popular with bird watchers in the winter, and I didn't want to make enemies for bicyclists. Perhaps if enough bikes rode the route, the birds may become habituated over time-- but I chose not to ride there.

Here in Arizona we have a number of National Wildlife Refuges that contain vast acreage in Sonoran Desert or Savannah where access is allowed to highway licensed vehicles (and I presume bicycles). One of these areas is the KOFA (King of Arizona) Refuge. This area contains miles of two track and four wheel drive routes in lush Sonoran Desert that make excellent bicycling adventures. My wife and I have camped in this refuge and ridden the 4x4 trails to our hearts content, with no adverse effect on the animals.

That refuge was established primarily for Desert Bighorn Sheep, and they prefer steep cliff faces and mountain slopes. The 4x4 routes did not cause any adverse effect on these habitats, and most were open to public travel. This is a situation where bicycles should not be prohibited or discouraged. I would hope each refuge would have a site specific plan, rather than blanket ban on any particular use.

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