From napalm to nature: How the bald eagle helped turn a weapons factory into a wildlife refuge

Science Friday
Bald Eagle

Right after Pearl Harbor, the US government began construction of a weapons factory on a site just outside of Denver, Colorado. Years later, the plant was converted into a pesticide factory. Now, the site is one of the nation's largest wildlife refuges — and, in part, it's thanks to that majestic American symbol, the bald eagle.

“One of the bitter ironies of the site is that the persistent organo-chlorine pesticides that were produced there put the bald eagle on the endangered species list,” says David Lucas, the Project Manager for the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colorado.

But when the bald eagle population began to recover, they were found again at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and the US Fish and Wildlife Service began working with the US Army to manage them. After a 20-year cleanup, the area is now 16,000 acres of prairie wildlife.

And the wildlife itself helped guide the cleanup process, Lucas says.

“During the Super Fund cleanup, the Fish and Wildlife Services was responsible for bio-monitoring,” Lucas explains. “They looked at the animals that were out living in the dirt: prairie dogs, various bird species, badgers, the fish that were in the lakes — and they were able to use them to detect where the chemicals were and when those chemicals were cleaned up. It was pretty neat.”

In addition to bringing the natural prairie plants and animals back to the area, the refuge is reintroducing bison. In fact, like the bald eagle, the bison help with the restoration program: They keep the grasslands healthy and they are a big draw.

“They’re superstars,” Lucas says. “They help us to connect with a lot of people. ... When I started, it was all about protecting habitat. [I thought] if we protected enough habitat, wildlife would thrive and everything would be OK. But we’ve learned now that if we can’t figure out how to get kids, right now, to care about wildlife, conservation ends.”

“Being in nature is an essential part of being a human,” he says. “Humans have evolved over tens of thousands of years, and just in these last 30 to 40 years we've become so disconnected from everything natural.”

Currently about 30,000 kids a year come through the refuge. The refuge had 23,000 public visitors in 2012 and over 300,000 in 2014. They soon expect to see more than a million visitors a year.

Bison and Denver
The reintroduction of American bison at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Refuge marks the return of an animal that was once a key component of prairie ecosystems.

US Fish and Wildlife Service

Considering the area is surrounded by the Rocky Mountains and families these days spend more time with their various electronic devices than just about anything else, that’s quite a success story — and Lucas loves it.

“I think the prairie ecosystem and the grassland ecosystems are far more exciting than those big mountains to our west,” he says. “But those big mountains to our west are what draw people to Denver, and that's why Denver is probably one of the largest growing cities in the nation.”

Lucas views the urban location as a plus. “We have millions of people who have access to this refuge and can see the work that we're doing there, and then understand why we're trying to conserve fish and wildlife and their habitat.”

One of his main goals for the refuge is to build partnerships with schools and with other conservation organizations.

“This is one thing we're lined up on,” he says. “We're not always lined up, but everybody agrees that what we have to do right now, together, is figure out how to bring kids out, get them excited about the outdoors, and get them excited about nature — not only for their own health, but because those kids will be the future conservation leaders.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.