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How The Federal Government Shutdown Affects Wildlife Refuges In Iowa

The partial government shutdown has limited services at wildlife refuges around the country. But that’s not stopping birders and other wildlife enthusiasts from going out and exploring.
At Desoto National Wildlife Refuge in western Iowa, the visitors center is closed and staffing is limited due to the partial government shutdown. On a cloudy Sunday, a skein of geese flies overhead and several cars drive through the refuge, stopping along the side of the road so drivers can take pictures of wildlife.

Most of the trails are closed, but Chuck Traxler, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region Assistant Regional Director of External Affairs, says that’s not related to the shutdown.

“There are areas that may be closed at certain times of the year, not as a result of federal funding, but in order to protect wildlife or unique ecological habitats,” Traxler said.

Sioux City resident Paul Roisen visited the refuge Dec. 26, days after the shutdown began. He heard a rumor that a tundra swan was at the refuge, but when he drove in, he was surprised to see the visitors center closed and trails blocked off.

“The little access I had did not give me much access to the water, where [the swan] would’ve normally been,” Roisen said.

He ultimately found the swan feeding in a cornfield outside of the refuge.

The closures didn’t bother John Calhoun from Papillion, Nebraska, who visited the refuge on Sunday. Calhoun says he still had a productive day, mostly sticking to the main road to take pictures of birds.

“Seen some eagles, some hawks,” Calhoun said. “That’s pretty much it.”

“And a lot of cars,” he said, as a car drove by.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife is not charging entrance fees at refuges during the partial shutdown, likely the reason for any increases in traffic Calhoun noticed Sunday. Typically, DeSoto Wildlife Refuge charges $3 per vehicle.

Iowa has seven wildlife refuges run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, but not all of them charge entrance fees.

The shutdown, which is in its third week, began in the middle of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which started mid-December and ran through the first week of January. The citizen science project that collects data to understand bird population trends takes place at various locations around the country, including some national wildlife refuges.

Roisen said if parts of refuges are flooded or closed, the counts "can't be done, which is really a shame.”

Typically, visitor centers are open for the bird count and U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologists help out at some of the refuges. Though biologists were unavailable when the shutdown began, Traxler said he doesn’t anticipate the reduced services at refuges negatively affected the count.

“[Volunteers] would’ve had access to areas where they historically would’ve done those bird counts,” Traxler said. “It shouldn’t have had much impact to that count at all.”

Traxler says he encourages people to get out and visit wildlife refuges, even while the federal government is shut down.

“We are looking forward to getting back to work and seeing them out there ourselves,” he said.

It's unclear when the government shutdown could end.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.