Bear River National Wildlife Refuge
Information Provided by Don Baccus

About The Refuge

The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, lies on the eastern edge of the Great Basin, just west of Brigham City, Utah. Directly east lie the Wellesvilles Mountains, which form the divide separating those watercourses which eventually lead to the ocean from those which lead to the Great Salt Lake. The Bear River, which runs through the heart of the refuge and lends its name to it, is one of those which run into the lake.

The Refuge, with its fresh water ponds and canals, is one of the most important resting and staging areas for migrating waterfowl in North America. In spring and summer, it is an extremely productive nesting area for birds like Clark's and western grebes, American avocet, Wilson's phalarope, black-necked stilt, snowy egret, and white-faced ibis.

Flooding was widespread throughout the Great Basin in the early 1980s. In southeast Oregon, Malheur Lake, then a vast marsh within the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, grew greatly in size, killing marsh vegetation which still has not fully recovered. At Malheur, this flooding caused declines in grebe productivity but great increases in the numbers of white-faced ibis and American white pelicans successfully raising young.

The Great Salt Lake, the largest body of water within the Great Basin and, unlike Malheur, as salty as its name suggests, also flooded. At Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Refuge Headquarters was destroyed. Worse, miles of canals, many water-control structures, and vast areas of marsh were inundated by salt water and in many cases destroyed. This saltwater flood was not nearly as benign as the fresh water flooding which occured at Malheur. While reconstruction of much of the refuge infrastructure has been completed, there is no headquarters and no visitor facilities other than an information kiosk and solar-powered composting toilet.

If you visit the refuge, then, you are unlikely to find more than a handful of cars on the loop road, but many birds. This makes the refuge an ideal place for bird photography.

Auto Loop

This refuge is an "auto loop" refuge - a set of dike roads, forming a loop about ten miles long, are open for auto traffic. Except for this road, and a very short boardwalk nature trail, the refuge is closed to the public.

Fortunately, this road passes along canals full of grebes, with plenty of wading birds feeding on the vegetation which borders them. Good views of mudflats, ponds, and marshes can be had from the road. There are rarely more than a few cars around, so it's a great place to explore by mountain bike. Unlike some refuges, you're not likely to be dusted off or pelted with gravel by some rude redneck doing 50. Last spring, it was so deserted that I put my pillow out on the entrance road, lay on my belly on the shoulder, and photographed a black-crowned night-heron at my leisure. I've included a photo of this scenario, and one of the heron, for your amusement.

Interpretive signs at intervals explain something of the ecology of the area, and there are parking areas where you're supposed to get out and look at things. As at most refuges, everyone just stops on the loop wherever they want and meanders along the road on foot. With traffic so low, they let you drive both direction on the loop road, too.

During high water years, avocet and stilt will nest right on the road where it passes fields, outside as well as inside the refuge proper. Much of surrounding area is owned by duck clubs, which kill foxes (did I mention they kill foxes?) and sell grazing leases so birders can see cattle egrets. Depending on water levels, these fields might be full of ibis.

I included the rather dull photo of the gravel road to give me an excuse to tell a story. This past spring (1997), Dan Smith, a Brigham City photographer, staked out 60 stilt and avocet nests along this road during spring flooding. The refuge personnel worked out an agreement with the county to only grade the center portion of this damaged gravel road, in order to avoid destroying the nests. Lo and behold, the county bladed both shoulders as well, probably due to poor communications in the road department (I'll give them the benefit of the doubt - this year). Scratch 60 nests.

Dan posted information on nature photography Q&A forum, and readers 'round the country mailed letters expressing their concern (disgust?) to the Box Elder County Commission.

The County has promised to ensure it doesn't happen again. Don't underestimate the power of public protest, or the usefulness of the net as a tool for organizing protest.

The avocet chick photos included in this section were hatched early alongside a paved section of the road - if you expand the photos by clicking on them and look closely, you can see the pavement under the inch of so of water they're walking through.

Photographing At The Refuge

This refuge is a great place to photograph. I've already touched on some of the reasons, such as the low use it gets and the attractive species which breed here. The birds which do breed here tend to be easier to photograph than their counterparts at Malheur, mostly because they occur in much larger numbers in areas open to the public. Malheur, for instance, is host to large numbers of breeding grebes but they are on Malheur Lake, a portion of the refuge closed to visitors. As many white-faced ibis breed at Malheur and the surrounding areas as at the Bear River refuge, but they hang out in flood-irrigated fields which, by the time they arrive in large numbers, have grown to the point that you normally can only see ibis heads, rather than the whole bird, as they forage for food. At Bear River, ibis are much more obvious and visible.

On the other hand, photographing black-crowned night-heron, snowy egrets, American avocet and black-necked stilts is easier at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge than at Malheur because they occur here in vastly greater numbers during the breeding season. And waterfowl blanket the refuge while migrating.

So, what's the catch? Why do I concentrate so heavily on photographing at Malheur? Mostly because the Oregon refuge has a much wider variety of bird habitat to explore and photograph, on and off the refuge. The species which are easy to photograph at Bear River are great, but passerines, hawks, owls, and and other kinds of birds are relatively scarce, especially more uncommon species.

Other Places To See

The Bear River refuge lies conveniently close to the Wellesvilles range, which in fall is used by several thousand migrating raptors. The range can be seen the the photo on the left side of this paragraph. The Bear Range east of Logan is home to montane species and has spectacular late summer wildflower displays. Both mountain ranges blaze with reds, oranges, and yellows in the fall.

Bear River valley, north of the refuge, is good for passerine birding, being the westernmost home of lark bunting and in general being a blending area for birds which call the Great Basin home, and those whose range doesn't extend west across it. The north shore of the Great Salt Lake, west of Golden Spike National Monument, has some good sage-steppe habitat to explore. Expect to find sage thrasher, burrowing owls, Brewer's sparrow and other birds of the sage-steppe community here. There's a sharp-tailed grouse lek on the monument, but when I stopped by National Park Service folks had heard the news but were clueless about its whereabouts.

There's a winter bald eagle roost in a valley east of the town of Willard. The eagles leave the roost at first light and can often be found scavenging waterfowl or roosting in cottonwoods in the Willard Bay area.

If you choose to visit the area, keep in mind that Jackson, Wyoming is only a few hours away. The drive there takes you through Logan Canyon and over the Bear Range. Tony Grove Lake, in the Bear Range just a few miles off the highway, is a great starting place for day hiking in the range, and Bear Lake, which borders the range on the east, is a significant waterfowl area.

Of course, like many nature photographers, when I've headed up Logan Pass on my way to Jackson, I've found it difficult to stop. The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park are hard to resist!

Getting There, Where To Stay, Other Resources

Before leaving home, you'll want to print out and study a checklist of birds found at the refuge.

The refuge lies 15 miles west of Brigham City, about an hour north of Salt Lake City on Interstate 15. Despite the sign, most folks in town seem unaware of its existence. Brigham City is a tidy Mormon town, neat and clean, with a handful of motels and restaurants. The correct exit to take off Interstate 15 if you wish to go directly to the refuge is well marked, and there's signage on Brigham City's sole major street as well if you choose to go into town, first. Enjoy the small-town atmosphere while you can, because Utah intends to pack 5 million people along the strip between the Wasatch Front and the Great Salt Lake over the next couple of decades.

Note: This information was provided by Don Baccus, a software engineer, naturalist, freelance photographer and writer from Portland, Oregon.

All photographs copyright 1996, Don Baccus


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