Call of the bugling elk signals new era for Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

By ‘minding the store,’ volunteer group will amplify conservation, education efforts

In a prairie of mixed grasses, a herd of elk grazes beneath an outcrop of red granite in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. It’s mating season, and soon the males will abandon their breakfast and go head to head in a fight for females.

At a safe distance, an early-morning tour group guided by the Friends of the Wichitas observes the elk—ears tuned to the males’ high-pitched bugling call, used to release aggression during mating.

Every September and October, the Friends lead bugling elk tours in the 59,000-acre Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwest Oklahoma.

The Refuge sees nearly 1.7 million visitors annually, including 18,000 school children, and the volunteer Friends, a group of about 230 members, are active year round. These volunteers give wildlife tours, and assist the Refuge with maintenance, community events, fundraising activities, and advocacy for animals and plants—anything that supports the Refuge’s mission to conserve the land and protect the buffalo, elk, longhorns, otters, birds, amphibians, and countless other creatures.

The Friends “amplify the experiences that visitors have,” says Ellen Jonsson, a Friends volunteer in charge of grants and fundraising. “We work to support (the Refuge’s) programs and help them achieve their priorities.”

As of Oct. 1, the Friends will add another activity to their roster—running the Nature Store at the Refuge’s visitor center. Under their management, the shop will have fewer expenses than would an outside entity, and, because the Friends is a non-profit organization, they will be able to contribute 100 percent of proceeds to the Refuge.

“We anticipate doubling the amount that has previously gone to the Refuge—and probably tripling it over time,” Jonsson says.

To help with the costs of the takeover, a local foundation gave the Friends a $38,000 matching grant. Individuals and businesses donated funds to the match, and Enbridge was part of that group—contributing $10,000 through our partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Refuge Friends program.

“With the help of the Enbridge grant, we’ve exceeded the match, which is absolutely wonderful,” Jonsson says.

Under the purview of the Friends, the Nature Store will sell books and resources to educate visitors on the protection and conservation of species in the Refuge. The shop will also carry local products and souvenirs.

“The store is part of the visitor experience,” says Cindy Finch, Enbridge’s senior public affairs advisor based in Duluth-Superior, “and the items for sale highlight the Refuge’s natural, cultural and historic richness.”

The store will also feature an area dedicated to the Friends, helping recruit new members who wish to promote, protect and care for the land and wildlife.

Jonsson became a member a few years ago, wanting to give back to the land she enjoyed as a bird-watcher: “We all volunteer because we love the Refuge.”