Brigham City • The sign, constructed in 1928 after Utahns lobbied Congress hard to establish a new federal refuge on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, reflects a pride in federal lands not often seen these days.
“Welcome to Brigham City,” reads the venerable span that crosses the northern Utah town’s main business district. “Gateway: World’s Greatest Game Bird Refuge.”
In an era where the state’s politicians fight presidential orders creating large national monuments such as Bears Ears, looking back to a time when politicians actually united to set aside lands to benefit wildlife and the outdoors provides an interesting study.
And visiting the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge west of Brigham City these days provides a delightful way to enjoy the outdoors any time of year.
Northern Utah settlers began using water from the Bear River to irrigate their crops with little thought to the millions of birds that used the delta where the river hit the Great Salt Lake.
By 1920, less than 3,000 acres remained. Then, when migrating waterfowl began to hit the area to feed in late summer under dry conditions, thousands of birds died due to botulism outbreaks.
So hunters, birders, conservationists and local leaders joined with Utah’s congressional delegation to establish the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, not by presidential proclamation but by an act of Congress.
With a big boost from a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the 1930s, dikes and water control structures were built, and the now-80,000-acre refuge was established.
Al Trout, who began managing Bear River in 1989 after the high waters of the Great Salt Lake had severely damaged its dikes, visitor facilities and control structures, recalled an amazing day he once had working on the refuge.
He was in an airboat so far from the main area that there was no sign of the burgeoning Wasatch Front civilization. All he could see were the Wasatch Mountains to the east, the Promontory range to the west, mountains near Tremonton to the north and Antelope Island to the south.
And a flat marsh that stretched to the horizon.
He called the area a jigsaw puzzle of marsh and water.
“That was one day I will never forget,” said Trout.
There were hundreds if not thousands of ibis nests stretching across the horizon. Terns, herons and egrets also nested.
“You are just trying to soak it up in your mind,” said Trout. “It was a million-dollar minute. You can’t plan it. It just comes together.”
Trout took over Bear River at perhaps its lowest ebb. He was the only employee and there was no money available to repair the massive damage.
The old headquarters and visitor center had been sheared off by ice, which also claimed an iconic observation tower. The dikes were damaged and the water control structures unusable.
Trout and a retired rocket engineer named Bob Ebeling rallied volunteers and raised money and donated equipment and time to rebuild the refuge.
Today’s visitors enjoy the benefits of that effort.
On a recent visit, there was time to stop at the visitor center where helpful volunteers answered questions and sold bird guides. Some stopped to examine the displays on the history and management of the area.
Hikers walked around a boardwalk system near the modern refuge headquarters and visitor center just off Interstate 15. Others simply headed west to the 12-mile one-way loop that allows visitors to enjoy the thousands of birds that can be seen at the refuge.
In an average year, more than 250 species are identified at Bear River. Each season offers distinct pleasures.
In October, more than 30,000 tundra swans arrive and stay through December.
The winter is a time for raptors. Bald eagles, prairie falcons and rough-legged hawks search for morsels of food. A few species hang around to survive the cold winter.
Spring is a time when the refuge teems with colorful life. Birds migrating north stop to nest and hatch their young. Expect to see many of the refuge’s feathered visitors display their most colorful plumage.
Summer is when broods begin to hatch. It is common to see geese and ducks with their broods. A real treat comes when watching a little one hitch a ride on the back of a western grebe.
Though millions of people live nearby, visitation at the refuge is typically light, around 30,000 for the entire year. That gives those who make the drive the feeling of sharing quiet time with the birds.
Though it seems the refuge stands still, it remains a place in flux.
The recent drought is drying up parts of the Great Salt Lake and making resting areas scarcer and more concentrated. And politicians keep making noises to dam the Bear River further, stealing the lifeblood of the famous bird refuge to quench the thirst of a growing human population.
For now, the refuge remains an important part of a migratory bird network stretching from Canada to South America.
And, as always, it’s a great place to share a morning or evening with flocks of birds.