Volunteering at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge a perfect fit for Elk River couple

Snowshoeing is one of the activities available for park goers at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge near Zimmerman. The park is one of the state’s hidden treasures. The refuge also has a large volunteer program, with more than 600 volunteers.      Photo by Mary “Karlie” Carlson

Snowshoeing is one of the activities available for park goers at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge near Zimmerman. The park is one of the state’s hidden treasures. The refuge also has a large volunteer program, with more than 600 volunteers. Photo by Mary “Karlie” Carlson

When Diane and Jim Stroschein decided to retire, they first thought cabin living would suit them and moved up north to a cabin near Grand Rapids. They stayed there a few years and enjoyed it. But eventually they decided they would prefer to be near family in the Twin Cities. While house hunting near Zimmerman, they drove down County Road 5 north of Orrock, and happened upon a sign for the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge’s “Wildlife Drive.” Turning onto the gravel road, they drove through marshy areas, across a creek, next to revitalized oak savannah and tall grass prairie, and beside the pools of the refuge.  They were thrilled to catch sight of birds they had seen up north – eagles and hawks, ducks, geese, and some of the herons and other wading birds that love wetlands.   

Diane and Jim loved their introduction to the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. Once they had found a home in nearby Elk River, they spent more time exploring the treasure that they had encountered on their drive. At their cabin up north, they had volunteered through RSVP Volunteering, an organization that matches up senior citizens with companies and organizations that are looking for volunteers. The Stroscheins contacted the Elk River office of RSVP Volunteering and soon it was suggested that they offer their time at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. It seemed a good fit for their interests.

Besides volunteering through RSVP Volunteering, Diane and Jim also joined the Friends of the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. Diane, who before retiring had been a retail manager for over 30 years, became involved in running the Friends’ Eagles Nest Nature Store. The store sells books and gift items, with the proceeds benefitting the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

The couple also began to volunteer a few hours at a time on the Wildlife Drive, where they talked with visitors and answered questions about habitat and about the refuge. Along with other volunteers, they took on this “roving” position, acting as interpreters and ambassadors for the SNWR.

This fox peers through the tall green grass at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. Foxes are one of the many species roaming the park. Photo by Mary “Karlie” Carlson

This fox peers through the tall green grass at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. Foxes are one of the many species roaming the park. Photo by Mary “Karlie” Carlson

The Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge had its official beginning in 1965. Yet, many years earlier, local residents had noticed that some of the once abundant wildlife and waterfowl had become less common. In 1941, the Sherburne County Conservation Club was founded by concerned local citizens to promote conservation of resources in the St. Francis River basin. The Minnesota Conservation Department then began conducting studies in the area. By the early 1960s, the state of Minnesota recommended that the land and its conservation be passed to the federal government for the establishment of a national wildlife refuge. The federal government took it on, and the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge was born on May 18, 1965.

The SNWR’s mission is “to enhance and maintain waterfowl production, restore and maintain native vegetation and wildlife, and provide and enhance habitat for wildlife diversity.” Their mission also includes a provision for public use. To achieve this objective, SNWR provides the public with “wildlife-oriented opportunities in interpretation, recreation, and outdoor classrooms when compatible with the resource and other refuge objective.”

In order to fulfill these objectives, the refuge offers many opportunities for outdoor learning.  Trails, such as Prairie’s Edge Wildlife Drive, and the Mahnomen and Blue Hill Hiking Trails, offer plenty of opportunities to view wildlife, with observation decks and even spotting scopes located at points along the trails. February’s schedule includes a snowshoe hike (snowshoes provided) and candlelight ski/hike. Other events include May’s bird tour and spring celebration and a wildflower tour and midnight moth program in June. October, of course, is the month to view thousands of sandhill cranes as they gather at the refuge and then take off on their long journey south.

The Oak Savannah Learning Center, which opened in May 2016, provides a new, state-of-the art building for interpretation programs, workshops and lectures. The refuge encourages student groups as well as individuals and families to take advantage of the resources for learning and recreation. Photographers are also often drawn to the refuge; recently a photography club was established which meets monthly at the Oak Savannah Learning Center.

The methods by which the refuge has fulfilled its mission of “enhancing and maintaining waterfowl production” as well as other conservation objectives have changed over the years. In the early days, refuge managers raised geese and ducks for introduction to the area, as well as controlling access to certain areas by hunters and trappers. Nowadays, the refuge uses controlled burns to revitalize native prairie and oak savannah habitats. A system of dikes is used to change water levels in the series of pools in order to encourage certain birds. Sandhill cranes, for instance, prefer roosting in shallow wetlands of about 18 inches of water. Ringneck ducks, on the other hand, prefer higher water levels.  

Eagles are common visitors and inhabiters in the refuge. Photo by Mary “Karlie” Carlson

Eagles are common visitors and inhabiters in the refuge. Photo by Mary “Karlie” Carlson

The refuge has achieved high levels of success, shown by increases in the numbers of nesting pairs of eagles, swans, and other birds. In 2016, there were more than 10 nesting pairs of eagles on the refuge. The huge increase in the number of migrating sandhill cranes who use the refuge for breeding or as a “staging place” (place to stop) on their migration is also one of the SNWR’s success stories. In the early years, there were very few cranes recorded at the refuge.  But now, the SNWR’s website claims that the refuge’s wetlands provide habitat for “up to 40 pairs of breeding sandhill cranes each year.” The yearly “crane tours” conducted in the fall by naturalists at the refuge bring visitors to an area where they can see the cranes. This year’s migration brought over 11,000 cranes through the SNWR on their journey south – the largest number of cranes ever seen at the Refuge.

Changes in the way the refuge has been managed throughout the years are documented in 2015’s A History of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge – the First 50 Years, which is based on the narrative summaries written by each refuge manager on a yearly basis. This book was part of the SNWR’s 50th anniversary celebration and was originally proposed by Diane Stroschein.

Attending a committee meeting to plan for the 50th anniversary, Diane made a suggestion: “I said, ‘Why don’t we write a history of the refuge?’” she remembered. That suggestion led to Diane being asked to lead the charge. Soon, Diane was reading through narrative reports, transcribing them, and editing them to make them more readable for the general public. It was a year-long project.

Diane was honored for her many contributions to the refuge over the last five years, including her work on the history book, with an award for Volunteer of the Year for 2015.

Diane hastened to say that many others also worked on the book and deserve at least as much credit as she has gotten – “All I did was read and transcribe those reports!”

It is no secret that there were many volunteers who worked tirelessly on the pieces that were combined to create this informative and beautiful book. Diane pointed out that another volunteer, Lee Johnson, spent years digitizing the photos and slides taken during those first 50 years; Sue Hix did final editing and revising of the historical account, and Mary Korlath formatted and designed the final version of the book. In addition, the Friends of the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge financed the publishing of the book.

Diane may have been honored for her volunteering, but she also heaps kudos on the SNWR staff for their treatment of volunteers.  

“They make you feel a part of things, even letting volunteers assist in making decisions,” said Diane, noting that not all places where seniors volunteer are quite as empowering.

According to Michelle Bengson, Visitor Services manager at SNWR, Sherburne has one of the best volunteer programs in the country, with approximately 600 volunteers. They also have one of the best “friends” groups. In 2008, the Friends of the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge received the “Friends Group of the Year” award by the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

Diane (above) and Jim Stroschein started volunteering at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge when they retired. A couple of years ago, Diane was named volunteer of the year. She is one of more than 600 volunteers at the refuge. Photo by Karen Flaten

Diane (above) and Jim Stroschein started volunteering at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge when they retired. A couple of years ago, Diane was named volunteer of the year. She is one of more than 600 volunteers at the refuge.
Photo by Karen Flaten

Michelle also could not say enough about Diane’s volunteer efforts to promote the SNWR. “There is a reason she was named our Volunteer of the Year for 2015,” said Michelle, noting that in 2015 alone, Diane donated 330 hours!

Diane, humble as always, said, “Well, I just think it’s important to give back.”

The Wildlife Drive is still a favorite place for Diane. Her eyes light up when she talks about the revitalized oak savannah habitat, where redheaded woodpeckers are finally being seen again.  Discussing the increase in nesting pairs of eagles and swans, Diane’s excitement could not be held back.  Mentioning that she had seen two pairs of sandhill cranes which made their nests along the drive this year, she exclaimed, “I saw their babies!”

The Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge’s headquarters is located at 17076 293rd Avenue, Zimmerman, MN 55398. Their phone number is 763-389-3323. E-mails can be sent to:  sherburne@fws.gov. Their website is www.fws.gov/refuge/sherburne.

The Friends of the Sherburne National Wildlife website is exploresherburne.org. Their Facebook page is www.facebook.com/sherburnerefugefans.