“What we try to portray here at the refuge is exactly what the Maxwell family intended when they gave the funds that started this in the 1940s."
What Betty Schmidt loves most about the prairie at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge is that it never looks the same twice.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that it changes every time. You can come here once, but have you been here in the spring to see the wildflowers? Have you seen the elk in January? Have you seen the colors change out here in the fall?” asked Schmidt, president of the Friends of Maxwell.
That diversity is what makes seeing the elk herd such a special experience. The elk tend to stay concealed in the trees on the 2,800-acre refuge, but in the winter, the herds will greet residents visiting on one of the refuge’s tram rides.
“You wouldn’t see them like this unless you were out in the wilderness and just happened to walk upon one accidentally,” Schmidt said. “When it’s a warmer winter, you won’t see them as close, but they’re still much closer than you’d see in other situations. They’re a little more shy than bison but they’re familiar with our tours since we’ve been doing them for 23 years.”
The shyness of elk can be troublesome when scheduling tours, but clever volunteers have a better understanding of how herds operate.
“We knew that it would warm up around noon and the elk would disperse around then, so we just needed to schedule carefully,” Schmidt said. “We’re able to keep their attention with range cubes off the feed truck. You might look at our feed truck driver and think ‘oh, he’s just dropping range cubes out there.’ But what he’s doing is repositioning the herd in a new area that hasn’t been trampled down yet.”
What might seem like a simple change, rotating feeding areas, works toward conservation.
“That’s very important to our grasses and wildflowers, things they survive on in our ecosystem,” Schmidt said. “In the conservation of the soil, if we feed too close to the trams or the trails, it will start grinding the soil down. Our feed truck driver is very aware of what he’s doing.”
Maxwell Wildlife Refuge is home to 70 elk and 160 bison, and the Friends of Maxwell has designed programs and activities at the refuge since 1993.
It is a local non-profit organization that works with the Kansas Wildlife and Parks to teach about the wildlife, history of the area and the importance of preserving the environment.
“Our main mission isn’t numbers, it’s the education,” Schmidt said. “What we try to portray here at the refuge is exactly what the Maxwell family intended when they gave the funds that started this in the 1940s. The had stipulations to keep the land as it was in the 1800s. We try to give a quality to the experience, instead of quantity.”
During the 1800s gold rush, John Gault Maxwell travelled from New York to California, but fell in love with the Kansas prairie on the way.
In 1859, Maxwell drove his herd of bison to set up a homestead in Kansas. He then married and had two sons, John and Henry. He dreamed of preserving a bit of prairie with roaming buffalo for generations to visit, learn about and experience buffalo like he did in the 1800s.
After his death in 1940, his sons donated 2,560 acres to the Kansas Forestry, Fish and Game commission, with 300 acres set aside for a fishing lake.
Several subspecies like Merriam’s elk and the eastern elk have gone extinct over a century ago, but efforts like Maxwell’s are what have kept species of elk alive. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, many of the 750,000 elk live on federally protected lands in the U.S. and Canada.
“The elk and bison came in 1951 — we had 10 bison and six elk. Now, we have over 70 elk. They’ll have their babies in June so those numbers will go up,” Schmidt said. “Our refuge manager can usually get better numbers because they’ll jump out, then they’ll jump back in. We get calls from farmers in the area telling us that there’s elk in their field. We don’t retrieve them because they’re traumatized by transport, but they usually just come back on their own.”
For other populations, conservation efforts are still in progress.
“The refuge tries to burn every three years to manage the grasses, but blue birds nest in dead wood. When we burned, we lost the blue bird population, so now we have blue bird boxes along the road. We give reports each year on how many fledglings we have to make sure we’re maintaining that aspect of our ecosystem,” Schmidt explained. “Conservation was important to the Maxwell family and Mr. Maxwell instilled that forward sight in his sons, who were the donors. This property is virgin soil, it’s never been farmed, and Mr. Maxwell knew that if farmers kept plowing all the land then we’d no longer have this.”
Schmidt hopes that these conservation efforts will preserve the refuge for visitors for years to come.
“We do sunset tours in October specifically for people who live in cities and can’t believe the number of coyotes out here. There’s different seasons for everything and there’s not a time that I come out here and don’t learn something,” Schmidt said. “People pick up on what we’re doing here so they visit, and then they come back and bring a friend.”
For more information, contact the Friends of Maxwell by visiting www.maxwellwildliferefuge.com or calling the tour center at 620-628-4455.