25,000 hours and still counting: A faithful volunteer at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge


Volunteers are vital to managing our public lands. They help greet visitors, staff events, maintain trails and conserve wildlife habitat. Many volunteer a few hours a week, but one passionate volunteer has logged 25,000+ hours surveying wildlife at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico -- that’s equal to working full time for more than 12 years.

A man in a blue jacket and tan hat looks through a telescope.
Jim Montgomery surveys wildlife at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Dr. James "Jim" Montgomery, Jr.’s remarkable volunteer career began in 1985 while he was a biology professor at the New Mexico Military Institute. Jim first visited Bitter Lake Refuge to hunt and bird watch but eventually turned to grading papers and crafting lesson plans while enjoying the natural setting. After noticing refuge staff conducting bird surveys, he offered his assistance. Fast forward 33 years, and Jim has been there longer than any other volunteer or or staff member at Bitter Lake Refuge. Jim is one of the Service's top record-holders for volunteer hours.

A man in a plaid red, white and blue shirt and a sweater vest stands in front of a full book shelf in a small office room.
A photo of Jim Montgomery from 1989 as he prepares for his weekly census of sandhill cranes. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Among his many volunteer accomplishments at the refuge: He has faithfully monitored the nesting success of the endangered least tern; trapped and inventoried small mammal populations; and helped remove invasive salt cedar and phragmites plants. A long-time sandhill crane enthusiast, Jim has assisted -- and at times even led -- the weekly crane counts during migration season on the refuge. One of his fondest memories of volunteering at Bitter Lake Refuge is getting to see 15,000 sandhill cranes burst into flight all at once in an incredible display of motion and sound. 

Two cranes spread their wings wide as they fly over water and an orange field.
Sandhill cranes taking flight at Bitter Lake. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Jim’s talents do not stop at wildlife biology. He has led many tours for the general public, bird clubs, school and civic groups, and universities. During his three decades volunteering at Bitter Lake Refuge, Jim has become an ambassador of goodwill between the refuge and the community. 

A man stands in front of a large group of people, teaching them. People are wearing bright colored jackets that contrast the empty brown and yellow field surrounding them.
A photo of Jim Montgomery leading a public tour at the refuge. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“I get pleasure out of doing it, and I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile,” he said. In 2003 he was named national Volunteer of the Year by the National Wildlife Refuge Association.

A man in a green sweatshirt and glasses holds and bands a brown bird with a long black bill.
Jim Montgomery bands a bird. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Over the years, Jim has gained as much personal satisfaction in contributing to the refuge and helping with conservation projects as he has given. He recommends volunteering on public lands as a way to give back to these treasured places.

Thanks to Jim and all the other public lands volunteers

Interested in volunteering on public lands? Check out some of the many ways to help support your public lands.