Government shutdown impacts Wheeler Wildlife Refuge visitors



Officials with the Festival of Cranes say the visitor’s center and observation building will be open on the festival weekend, January 12 and 13. They say these areas will be open because the festival is a WWRA sponsored event and will be supported by members and volunteers.


Park-goers started 2019 off on the right foot as folks across the state set out on annual New Year’s Day hikes. But some places are closed and have parts that will not open Wednesday because of the government shutdown.

At Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, right now is the peak time to see what’s one of their biggest attractions: the cranes. Because of the shutdown, some people say their plans to see the cranes up close are spoiled.

It’s Day 11 of the refuge visitor’s center and observatory being blocked off. It’s thrown a wrench in the plans of a documentary filmmaker.

“Normally we would go in and shoot in the observation room where you can get some good shots through the glass in there,” said Mike Barbieri who came from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “You can get right up there close to the birds and there’s a blind that you can book, but without being able to contact any of the employees we can’t access any of those places.”

With less staff looking over parks, there have been reports of litter and people possibly damaging national parks across the country. But this has not seemed to plague the refuge. 

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contingency plan, essential workers stay on duty, such as animal caretakers and management who protect the property. But there are 12 federally listed endangered or threatened species on the 35,000 acres and Barbieri fears it isn’t enough.

“If those employees aren’t working then they’re not here to be able to protect them and keep people out of places where they shouldn’t be,” Barbieri said. “So it’s dangerous to the birds, it’s bad for the environment.”

The National Park Service reports visitor spending in 2017 was more than $40 million dollars. Some believe confusion over whether or not the refuge is even open means less visitors. 

There’s no one to answer the phones so even on New Year’s Day there’s confusion.

“We’ve been here about an hour and a half already and there have been maybe a dozen people here,” said Peter Shive, who came from Wyoming. “Just before you got here there was a guy who had driven all the way here from Chicago.”

The refuge attracts thousands to the Morgan County area every year.

The Festival of Cranes at the wildlife refuge is on January 10th. Officials with the festival say if the government shutdown is still going on they’ll move presentations to a venue in Decatur.

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