Ken Barnes photo

Pictured is the entrance to Kern National Wildlife Refuge, located 19 miles west of Delano on Garces Highway at Corcoran Road.

How well I remember when the Kern Refuge was first established in 1960.

Composed of over 10,000 acres and 16 square miles of habitat, the thought of most waterfowl hunters in the area at that time was disaster.

We were all afraid most of the ducks would just stay on the refuge and not come off. It wasn't as bad as we feared during the first two years before they allowed hunting to take place, but the Gilbreath Brothers commercial hunting club took the brunt of the effect.

I remember on shoot days — which were Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday — when Bob and Elmer Gilbreath would ride around the perimeter of the complex in a Jeep with a CO/2 cannon mounted on it, letting off a series blasts that could be heard for miles. All this to try and stir birds off the refuge and out into the surrounding ponds they had hunters on.

They had some reasonable success because the federal government took them to court to cease this practice. After the refuge began to let hunters on after the first two years, the lawsuit was worked out an agreement.

The western half of the reserve has never been really used for habitat, and is mostly native flora. It only gets water when there is an extreme amount during wet years. The eastern 5,000 acres is used for a haven for waterfowl and birds of many types, with a portion allowed for hunting.

The "closed zone" is always a safe area for ducks and geese. Most of the hunters are just freelancers, in that they try and find an area to set up on. But, there are blinds that can be obtained through a draw system, and there are also handicap blinds.

Over the last near 60 years, the Kern has been one of the top producing refuges for hunters in the state year after year. The current project leader, or manager, is Nick Stanley. He is in his 20th year at Kern trying to establish land conservation and habitat restoration, as well as looking after endangered species and migratory birds.

It's an endless job, but he is a great individual who takes a lot of pride in his work and his relationship with waterfowl hunters. The refuge sits on a site that was originally part of the largest freshwater wetland complex in the western United States...the Tulare Lake Basin.

Through restoration and maintenance of habitat diversity, the refuge also provides suitable habitat for endangered species such as the Kit Fox, Blunt Nose Leopard Lizard, and Tipton Kangaroo Rat. Over 5,000 visitors annually are involved in programs ranging from hunting to wildlife viewing.

Sitting in a blind a few weeks ago, I tried to come up with a number for the waterfowl that had been bagged over the years while shooting was allowed at Kern.

Up until the mid 1980s, I believe, the refuge was open for shooting three days a week. Then it changed to Wednesdays and Saturdays only. During all those years we have usually had a minimum of a 12 week hunting season through the California Dept. of Fish & Game. This amounts to 1,644 shoot days over 57 years. I can remember many, many years when the daily kill average per hunter was four to five. One of the best statewide.

Then there were years like this past season when it was less than two. Just for interest, lets say the average take per hunter over all the years is three. The refuge allows a maximum of 126 hunters per day. If we take an average of 70, this would mean 210 birds bagged per day.

That would bring our grand total of birds harvested since it opened astounding 345,240. Wow!! That is something. The whole system is a win-win for everyone.

The millions of dollars that hunters pay for Federal and State duck stamps helps keep the refuge system nationally in business providing for the waterfowl, while at the same time allowing hunting to keep overpopulation in check.

The Kern Refuge is one of the best. You should try it sometime.

Ken Barnes is a record setting shooter and longtime outdoorsman from Kern County. Email him at with comments or column ideas.

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