TAKE REFUGE: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Bison grazes plains

Bison were reintroduced to the plains of Colorado in 2007.

At the start of WWII, the U.S. Army purchased grasslands just north of Denver, Colorado and turned them into a chemical weapons testing and manufacturing site–hence the name Arsenal. Today, this area is a safe haven for wildlife. But how did these lands make the turnaround from industrial zone to conservation success story?

After weapons development ceased, an immense environmental cleanup effort began. Poisonous waste products had to be removed  and streams clean of toxic compounds. When nesting bald eagles were found on the site, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined the effort. And in 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed legislation designating the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, which today spans some 16,000 acres.

What to Do?

The area was originally short-grass prairie and key habitat for black-tailed prairie dogs, bison and more. The Fish and Wildlife Service is working hard to restore these lands to their natural state, planning to have reseeded nearly 8,000 acres of former crop fields with buffalo grass, blue grama, wild flowers, shrubs and other grasses native to Colorado’s high plains over the next several years.

Today, mule deer, coyote, and black-tailed prairie dogs are common sights.  And since 2007, the mighty bison has once again called this refuge home.

Mule deer graze in plains outside Denver

Mule deer graze plains in front of the Denver skyline.

More than nine miles of trails provide opportunities for viewing and photographing the diverse wildlife and scenic landscape. Wildflowers color the vast plains and the majestic Rocky Mountains make a picturesque backdrop. The stunning scenery lends itself to the refuge’s annual photography competition, where the winners’ images are made into official postcards.

One of the primary goals of the refuge is to provide environmental education to the community, particularly younger generations. The refuge hosts hayrides and guided tours to get children up close and interacting with the natural world. The staff also leads programs to help eager Girl and Boy Scouts earn their badges.

The visitor’s center is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s a great source of information about the refuge’s history, landscape and wildlife. Engaging storytellers at the center’s Ranger Reader Station can spin a good yarn for the youngsters, while adults can take a tour with the refuge’s knowledgeable staff.

As these lands have transformed over the years from farmland to industrial site to wildlife refuge, they’ve developed a rich history that includes remarkable achievements in restoring and safeguarding the natural world.