Water in the desert is like a magnet for wildlife and that makes Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge one of Wyoming’s special places.
When asked about unusual wildlife sightings, Refuge Manager Tom Koerner said many wildlife species that are common here are rare elsewhere.
“I refer to this refuge as the interstate highway for wildlife in southwest Wyoming,” Koerner said.
A Bird-Watching Paradise
The 25-mile-long (36 river miles) narrow leaf cottonwood riparian zone on the Green River south of Fontenelle Reservoir is a place that causes hunters to daydream and bird watchers to salivate.
Sheep camps and mustangs dot the bluffs above this oasis on the Green River. Down in the river bottom, the distinctive song of the red-winged blackbird, o-ka-lee, rings out while a pair of white-faced ibis poke around in the mud searching for crawdads with their long beaks.
Male yellow-headed blackbirds battle each other for positions at two feeders full of black sunflower seeds. The females haven’t shown up yet; the males show up first to establish nesting sites.
Asked about birds to watch for here, Koerner replied, “Well, there’s about 200 species.”
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pamphlet that lists Seedskadee’s wildlife, from belted kingfishers to common carp, is 10 pages long.
This scrubby sagebrush portion of the Cowboy State certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of sunshine.
In a recent conversation about Seedskadee with the director of Nebraska tourism, Koerner said that, “It’s not for everyone, but we love it here.”
Sometime later the slogan showed up in Nebraska tourism advertising.
“I can’t prove that he took my idea and used it, but the timing is interesting,” Koerner said.
The wildlife viewing opportunities are similar to Wyoming’s more famous national parks, but without the crowds. In fact, it hasn’t even gotten to a point where officials monitor tourist traffic at Seedskadee.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the area hosting about 2,000 students during the month of May each year from Kemmerer, Green River, Rock Springs, Farson, La Barge and Big Piney.
Unfortunately, there were some cancellations this spring and it hasn’t yet regained the previous momentum, Koerner said.
Koerner said a lot of travelers that have been to Yellowstone and Teton national parks come to Seedskadee looking for a more remote experience.
“The experience you should expect here is there won’t be a lot of hand-holding,” he said. “But you can come into the visitor center and get your questions answered, and then it’s yours to explore.”
Freedom To Explore
Another difference here is that travelers are truly encouraged to explore.
There aren’t any hiking trails or signs admonishing tourists to stay on the path. Here, you’re encouraged to find a game trail, wander along the river or bushwack your own unique route to wherever you want to go.
“A lot of people not familiar with the national wildlife refuge system show up and want to know where trails are,” Koerner said. “We only have one established trail that leads down to the river. But you can park and walk anywhere you want, just don’t block the gates.”
The refuge is wide open to all forms of explorers, including hunters, anglers, birdwatchers and hikers. However, about 2,000 of the refuge’s 26,210 acres is off limits to hunting.
You can’t camp on the refuge, but there are two campgrounds nearby and unlimited dispersed camping on Bureau of Land Management lands that surround Seedskadee.
The refuge was first established in 1965. Its Environmental Education Center is now 11 years-old and includes an impressive collection of taxidermy woven into interpretive displays.
The students who visit get to go on a scavenger hunt to look for information among the displays.
The taxidermy includes all the small mammals commonly found in Wyoming. In addition, there’s a full body bull moose mount, a flying neck-banded trumpeter swan that was killed by a power line, a golden eagle in flight and a sage hen in full strut.
Even more impressive is a trashy, nontypical, double drop tine mule deer buck that was shot in the refuge’s closed zone.
Koerner said they caught the offender and confiscated the buck. There’s also a photograph on the wall next to the mount taken before the buck was killed.
Koerner said the buck started literally taking refuge on the refuge about three years prior to his unfortunate demise. He would show up about the time hunting season started and stay through the end of season.
During those three years the charismatic buck developed a significant number of followers among locals.
Battle Of Bull Moose
But wait, there’s even more here. On the wall behind the flying trumpeter swan is a pair of European mounted trophy-sized bull moose heads that were found wedged together.
The pair was found dead and partially submerged in the Green River by a refuge visitor. Koerner said the tourist came into the refuge headquarters to ask if he could salvage the heads.
This noteworthy, yet tragic, story came to an end when a brow tine of one of the animals pierced the jugular vein of the other. The bull that was still alive drug the dead one into the river where he drowned, Koerner said.
Just Passing Through
Koerner said Seedskadee also is important from a historic perspective. The Pony Express Route passed through here, as did the Mormon, California and Oregon trails.
Geographically, the refuge lines up with South Pass, the only way for settlers to get across the south end of the Wind River Range.
The name Seedskadee is Native American, but from which tribe it originated is uncertain, Koerner said. It means “river of the sage grouse.”
The refuge is also well known among fly-fisherman. There are four drift boat launch sites along this section of the Green River.
Koerner picked out sage hens and trumpeter swans as the species uniquely connected to the refuge. About nine pairs of trumpeter swans nest there. An aerial survey conducted last winter counted 398 swans on the river inside the refuge boundary.
Regarding sage hens, he advises wildlife watchers to drive the refuge’s auto tour route.
In the evening during the summer months, it’s common to see up to 100 sage hens moving between the river bottom and the sage brush flats where they go to roost.