Not Just for the Birds

A sanctuary for all seasons at Camas Wildlife Refuge

Published online: Jun 11, 2021 Articles, Road Trips Steve Smede
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For all their splendor, our region’s wild, wide-open spaces can test a traveler’s resolve. That’s especially true in the thralls of late winter, when blue-bird days coax us out of our dens, only to slap us with a blinding snow, bone chilling wind or unforeseen squall.

Now in early summer, I can only imagine what it would be like to withstand those elements as a wayward bird or burrowing critter, hunkered in its hole or nest as it ekes out an uncertain survival in the hope of warmer, longer, lighter days to come.

In some locales, our resident wildlife can hone in on their challenges with only the minimal burden of two-legged intruders.

We call such places sanctuaries, and for good reason. 

They not only give wildlife a break from us humans. If we’re mindful about it, they can also give us humans a break from ourselves.

For a perfect example, look no further than Camas Wildlife Refuge. It’s a sanctuary for all seasons, just a stone’s throw north of Idaho Falls. If you take your time to savor your surroundings, you’ll feel like you’ve gone not just into the wild, but well back in time.

The refuge was set apart in 1937, but well before that, settlements in the area were always sparse. Even for members of the native Bannock tribe, the vast marsh-scape was little more than a stopover on their way northeast to Kilgore to gather roots from the Camas plant. According to the National Wildlife Refuge System, the late 1800s did bring in some homesteaders for ranching activity, but most of the parcels were later sold to the government when the refuge was established. Today, as in the past, the surrounding plain provides a motherlode of fertile soils for hay and grain. Within the refuge, some of that bounty goes directly to the wildlife for food and habitat. It’s a win-win for cooperating farmers and refuge managers. It not only provides sustenance, but also keeps birds inside the refuge and out of adjacent fields.  

Mammalians of all stripes wander, forage and frolic throughout the refuge. Depending on the season and time of day, you can spot deer, elk, antelope, a few stray moose and other usual suspects. Thanks to the property’s excellent wildlife viewing route, you can do your spotting without ever leaving your car. 

Fur-bearers aside, the real rock stars of Camas are the birds. Over a few weekend trips to the refuge this spring, I was fortunate enough to spot upwards of a dozen feathered species. 

Bald eagles roost at Camas in late winter, and can be spotted easily from the road side just north of the refuge headquarters. Into March and April, waterfowl numbers hit an apex—up to 50,000 of them according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages the property. Next come the songbirds. They utilize the wetlands in May and June to beef up and charge their batteries before heading further north. Other notable birds include hawks, owls, curlews and healthy populations of ring-necked pheasant and sage grouse.

For such a close destination from Idaho Falls (37 miles), the atmosphere is just as reclusive and remote as anything you’d find in wilderness areas elsewhere around the Gem State. Concentrate hard enough and yes, you might barely pick up the hum of a distant long-hauler ambling down I-15 as you course your way around the loop. But here’s a better plan: Grab a map, turn off your phone, put your wagon in park, hush your horses and open your ears.

Can you hear even a whisper of that world you left behind? Whether you are a wildlife nut or just an uncommitted lookee-loo with an afternoon to burn, the sensory experience alone is a great reason to come out here.

One of many, in fact. For there is not only much to see and hear, but also much to learn. 

The wildlife service sums it up nicely in its own comprehensive conservation plan and environmental assessment, stating, “Here, people of all ages and abilities will have the opportunity not only to enjoy, but to better understand the habitats and wildlife of the eastern Snake River Plain, and the importance of natural systems. We will use water resources wisely and become a model for energy and water conservation. We will work with our partners to sustain functional ecosystems in a changing environment.” 

For I.F. folk, getting there is a pretty simple 45-minute drive. Hop on I-15, take Exit 150 at Hamer and follow the signs. For more information, check out the Camas National Wildlife Refuge page at fws.gov. You can also reach the Refuge Headquarters at 208-662-5423. 

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