Howl-O-Ween Fun on National Wildlife Refuges

a press release written for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System, October 2008

It is dusk, the Saturday before Halloween. Dozens of adults and children stand on a gravel road, surrounded by the trees and wetland bogs of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina. They are silent, listening intently. If they are lucky, they will hear it – the sound of a red wolf calling in the distance.

The howl is the sound from a bygone era when red wolves populated much of the southeastern United States. By 1980 red wolves were declared extinct in the wild, decimated due to intensive predator control programs and habitat loss. Under a recovery plan through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, red wolves were bred in captivity and reintroduced in 1987 on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Now an estimated 100 to 130 wild wolves populate the refuge and five surrounding counties.

Hearing howls in the dark woods may seem spooky to some, but most people on the “Howling Safaris” are thrilled by the sound, says Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, an education and advocacy nonprofit organization that schedules and leads the tours on the refuge. “People are just amazed,” Ms. Wheeler says. “Red wolves are very rare to see in the wild. To be able to stand there and have them answer in a howl is very cool.”

The “Howl-O-Ween” safari is one of several Halloween events offered at National Wildlife Refuges across the country. The safaris begin with a briefing, usually by Ms. Wheeler, on the history of red wolves and the reintroduction effort. Participants caravan in their cars over a gravel road to a site within the refuge, and Ms. Wheeler lets out a howl to provoke a red wolf response. Later, children and then all the participants have a turn to let loose their own howls.

The wolves don’t respond every night, but when they do, it’s like tapping into their phone network. “When wolves howl, they’re identified by their pack members,” said Diane Hendry, outreach coordinator for the Red Wolf Recovery Program at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. “Their voices are just as different and identifiable as ours are to each other.”

The Red Wolf Coalition offers the free “Howl-O-Ween” safari as well as safaris throughout the summer for $5 per person. This year’s Howl-O-Ween will convene at the refuge parking lot at 6 p.m., Oct. 25. Reservations are required, and can be made online at www.redwolves.com or by calling 252-796-5600.

For those seeking a different take on the Halloween season, some other National Wildlife Refuges offer fun and educational alternatives:

Creatures of the Night
Visitors get to know the wild animals that come out after dark at “Nocturnal Creature Night,” October 25, 5:30-8:30 p.m., at Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge in Sussex County, New Jersey and Orange County, New York.

Refuge staff and volunteers dressed in costumes as nocturnal animals are stationed along a nature trail. Guided tour groups meet and learn about each animal – what they eat, who their predators are, why they look the way they do. And each animal character hands out a treat reflective of its own diet. (The fox offers rat-shaped lollipops, and the moth caterpillar provides maple leaf candy, for example.)

The 24 costumes were designed and handmade by Marie Springer, founding president of the nonprofit organization, Friends of Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge. Ms. Springer launched Nocturnal Creature Night nine years ago, and she adds more costumed animals each year.

“I try to make the costumes as anatomically correct as possible so the people wearing the costumes can really teach about that creature,” she says, explaining that the firefly costume’s abdomen lights up and that the male and female moths have different antennae indicative of their genders.

Reservations for the one-and-a-half-hour guided tours are required.

Campfire Gathering
In Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, families are invited to “Get Wild at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge” on Oct. 31 at 5 p.m. at the Visitors Center. Participants will gather around a campfire to learn about the various nocturnal creatures that make their homes on the refuge, including owls and snakes. For information on the program, call the refuge at 406-777-5552.

Bats and Spiders
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, MA, offers a spider program for preschoolers and a bat program for children 6 to 9 years old. Both programs feature crafts and close-up looks at spiders or bat skeletons. The preschool program includes songs and finger play.

“We try to dispel some of the myths about these animals and get people a little more comfortable with them,” says Supervisory Park Ranger Kate Toniolo. Check the refuge’s Web site: www.fws.gov/northeast/parkerriver/ or call 978-465-5753 for program dates and times.

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