Review: Ecotourists Save the World

The Top 10 Volunteer Wildlife Conservation Programs

By Christa Romano

Bird watching on the Bill William River in Arizona
Birdwatching on the Bill William River in Arizona

Traveling has always been popular but giving back to the environment has never been so fashionable.

The book Ecotourists Save the World supports this growing trend by offering readers profiles of more than 300 volunteer programs around the world.

Below is a list of the top ten volunteer programs in the United States with all the information and links you’ll need to participate in plant and animal conservation and sustainability, all the while seeing a different part of the country.

1. Arizona: Bill William River National Wildlife Refuge

Bird watchers are invited to travel to Parker, Arizona, any time of the year to help research a variety of migratory birds all the way from Central and South America, including the yellow warbler, vermillion flycatcher, and the summer tanager.

Volunteers will also help out with park construction and landscaping. This free program will set you up in an RV during your stay. Just call and make your reservations for your family, your group or your lonesome two months in advance.

Contact the Refuge by email. Call at (928)667-4144, or visit the volunteer site.

2. California: Mapping Change in California’s Mountains

Only 100 miles from the crowded and congested city of Los Angeles you could find yourself studying the effects of global warming and collecting solid data on what’s happening with plants in the area, what plants used to be there, and what the effects of current and future management policies could be on the overall health of this ecosystem on the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains.

You’ll want to be physically fit for this one, or should at least have the desire to become fit, because you’ll also be hiking 2-6 miles per day. This program will cost travelers $2,500 for 8 days, covering accommodations, meals, transportation, training and support.

Contact Earthwatch Institute by email. Call at (978)461-0081 or (800)776-0188 or visit the volunteer site

3. California: Sharks and Rays of Monterrey Program

What could be a more exciting way to give back to the environment than to be working with a bunch of sharks in the gorgeous Monterey Bay? On this ten-day volunteer adventure you’ll head out in a wetsuit and set nets to capture and tag seven different shark and ray species.

As you motorboat around the bay you’ll record species, size, gender, and take tiny fin clippings for DNA analysis. All animals are released unharmed. When not out on the water, you can spend free time experiencing the many attractions of Monterrey Bay, from fine dining to kayaking, or enjoying the four-bedroom beach house you’ll be staying in. This program costs $2,650.

Contact Earthwatch Institute by email. Call at (978)461-0081 or (800)776-0188 or visit the volunteer site. For more info on this program, click here.

Otters at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas
Otters at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas

4. Kansas: Quivira National Wildlife Refuge

This wildlife refuge was recently named one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas. It’s got everything from 300 different species of birds to black-tailed prairie dogs, red foxes and river otters.

Depending on what you want to do, and when you want to go you assist the staff at this refuge by working the visitors center desk, helping with waterfowl and shorebird surveys, practicing carpentry, assisting with special events, trail maintenance, assisting with educational programs or presenting guided tours.

The website emphasizes the need for full time and part time volunteers, so if you’re looking for a free-of- charge, spur-of-the-moment adventure, this could be the volunteer program for you.

Contact the refuge office by email. Call at 620-486-2393 or visit the volunteer site

5. Louisiana: Sabine National Wildlife Refuge

The largest coastal marsh refuge on the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River has been in serious need of volunteers since 2005 when Hurricane Rita blew through the wetlands and caused severe damage to the area’s canals and marshes. Despite the destruction and closing of Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, the area is still a major nursery area for alligators and other reptiles, mammals, and numerous wading, water, and marsh birds.

Depending on when you go, volunteer projects can include conducting biological surveys, photography and art work, habitat restoration activities, and environmental education just to name a few. This free program offers refuge housing and a small stipend to qualified interns and volunteers. All training is provided on site and is held year-round.

Contact the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge by email. Call at (337)762-3816 or visit the volunteer site

A brown bear at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary in Minnesota
A brown bear at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary in Minnesota

6. Minnesota: American Bear Association: Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary

An exciting and rare chance to see cubs nurse and bears play up close and personal may be enough reward for volunteers to sign a liability waiver and donate their time to the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary, which receives volunteers from different countries around the world. When not preparing meals for black bears, maintaining and cleaning feeding areas or planting vegetation, volunteers will enjoy campfires, barbeques, picnics, and swimming time in the nearby Pelican Lake.

Long and short-term assignments are available which are free to participate in, in exchange for service. Accommodations and meals will be provided for adult groups and solo travelers any time between May and September.

Contact the American Bear Association by email. Call at (218)757-0172 or visit the volunteer site

7. New York: New York City Wildlife Program

The New York City Wildlife Program proves that you don’t need to be a country boy/girl to help out local wildlife. Between skyscrapers a team of scientists will aid volunteers in the collection of animal inventory data, the tracking of native wildlife and a study of the impact of the urban environment on the city’s animal life, including mammals, amphibians and birds.

All research will be conducted at various areas within 100 miles of Manhattan, New York — moving from urban to suburban to rural landscapes, offering volunteers the opportunity to give back to the environment while exploring a major metropolis. This program costs up to $1,750, which includes 9 days of accommodations, meals, ground transportation and training.

Contact Earthwatch Institute by email. Call at (978)461-0081 or visit the volunteer site.

Sea gulls at the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada
Sea gulls at the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada

8. Nevada: Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge

Home to more than 280 species of birds, the Stillwater wetlands have been named a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy.

Volunteers will have the opportunity to see the pelican, ibis, egret, gull and many other birds as they conduct wildlife surveys, participate in bird-banding projects, take part in refuge maintenance and help to eliminate invasive plant species.

This refuge is located in a desert oasis so make sure you pack lots of sunscreen and light clothing, no matter the time of year you intend on volunteering. Housing is provided, and program is free for families, groups and solo travelers of all ages.

Contact Stillwater Refuge by email, call at (775)423-5128 or visit the volunteer site

9. New Mexico: Dexter National Fish Hatchery

Volunteers at the Dexter National Fish Hatchery will get to have all of fun of fishing while helping instead of harming 15 different endangered species of fish. The Hatchery is home to the largest number of threatened and endangered fish species of any facility in the United States, and has a broodstock for each species, rearing fish with the intent of reintroducing them into their native habitat.

The fish-tagging volunteer program will have participants involved in the tagging of 150,000 threatened fish each year, aiding in research and helping the Hatchery to distinguish between year-class and species. Volunteers will be housed for free in RV hookups and trailer housing in exchange for service.

Contact The Hatchery and Tech Center by email, call at (575)734-5910 or visit the volunteer site

Canoeing on the Lower Rio Grande in Texas
Canoeing on the Lower Rio Grande in Texas

10. Texas: Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge

The Zebra Longwing and the Mexican Bluewing are just two examples of the 300-plus kinds of butterflies and 500-plus bird species found in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. A warm climate year round and a flowing river have made this flourishing refuge one of the most unique and biologically diverse natural areas in North America.

Volunteers will help conserve this rich landscape by surveying the local plant and animals, collecting seeds and plantings, measuring water quality and take on special studies, using the refuge as an outdoor laboratory for research projects all year round. Full RV hookups are provided in exchange for full or part time volunteer service.

Contact this National Wildlife Refuge by email. Call at (956)784-7521

And our honorable mention… Which is not technically in the continental United States but is still a territory, and you don’t need a passport to go there:

11. Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico’s Rain Forest Program

Rainforests around the world are at serious risk of depletion, including Puerto Rico’s Las Casas de la Selva forest. Volunteers will be able to participate in many different tasks including measuring trees, counting lizards or frogs, helping to tag and identify vine species, and helping to set up new experimental plots for planting different tree and shrub species.

This high activity program will have participants hiking through beautiful, tropical rainforest areas, hillsides and rivers. Volunteers will also have the opportunity to take a salsa dancing class and to experience the local culture and cuisine. This program costs $1,750 for ten days of accommodations, meals, ground transfers and training.

Contact Earthwatch Institute by email. Call at (978)461-0081) or visit the volunteer site


Ecotourists Save the World: The Environmental Volunteer’s Guide to More Than 300 International Adventures toConserve, Preserve, and Rehabilitate Wildlife and Habitats

christa romanoChrista Romano is a former GoNOMAD intern. She lived in Thailand and started a real estate magazine, now she’s back in the US.

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