McLean Game Refuge: Its fourth director shares an update

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Connor Hogan

In the summer of 2017, a new director, Connor Hogan, came to McLean Game Refuge. He is new in terms of the historic longevity of game refuge directors: In its 87 years of operation, Connor is only the fourth director. For Connor, this is a dream job, which may be the reason its past directors have stayed so long. The job is multi-faceted. As a forester it enables him to sharpen his understanding of wildlife and how animals fit in the ecology. There is the adventure of discovering new places within the game refuge to piece together the history of its uses over three centuries. There is the satisfaction of working with people from many specialties and scientific backgrounds, collaborating with partner organizations and meeting people throughout the region as he gives over a dozen talks each year.

Senator George P. McLean established the McLean Game Refuge in 1932, and his will is the guiding document for management of the refuge. In their interpretation of the will, the Trustees of McLean have clarified four goals: Conservation—creating “a ‘natural park’ where plants and animals can thrive without degradation from human activity”, Recreation—the Senator wanted people to experience nature and be able to “find in them peace of mind and body…”, Research and Education. The refuge leadership maintains a balance among these goals, prioritizing conservation while still allowing for recreation, education, and research.

Hogan leads McLean’s in accord with these directives, while bringing his own education, experience and personality to bear. He is articulate and engaging, with a broad smile; he readily shares his extensive knowledge in an understandable way. Growing up, Hogan lived on an army base on the island of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, where his father was a research scientist. He earned a B.A. from Bates College and worked in a number of industries following graduation, including landscape design. His passion for working with plants led him to reforestation efforts in Guatemala’s Sierra Madre Mountains in 2013 and later to Yale to earn his master of forestry degree.

Hogan shared some Flashy Facts about McLean Game Refuge:

● The refuge contains 4,415 acres, primarily in Granby, but also in Simsbury and Canton.

● There are 20,000 annual human visitations to McLean, based on car counts, surveys and cameras. Yes, there are motion-activated cameras located strategically throughout the forest! This may come as a surprise at first, but cameras further the refuge’s directive to conduct wildlife research.

● He believes it is the largest private wildlife refuge in Connecticut.

● There is an approximately 1,000-foot vertical distance between the refuge’s high and low points.

● The oldest known tree is 373 years old, the tallest tree is a 146- foot white pine and the biggest tree is sixteen feet around.

● There are 2.2 million trees of all ages in McLean.

● Are there bears? “Plenty”, Connor replies with a grin.

Many a dog-lover hiking in McLean has wondered, “Why must dogs be on a leash”? The answer is to meet McLean’s’s directive to protect nature. Roaming dogs destroy bird and turtle nests, plant and animal life, kill rabbits and even deer. They also frighten people who are afraid of dogs. So, yes, even your gentle old yellow lab must be leashed, for the sake of consistency.

Hogan gazes up at one of McLean’s largest trees.

McLean Game Refuge employs summer interns of high school, college and graduate school level, who bring different skillsets—ecology, forestry, wildlife, trail maintenance, mapping—to the game refuge, furthering the goals of conservation, recreation, research and education. In return, the interns receive experience, career development, and connections to many of Connecticut’s conservation entities.

This past summer saw the construction of a new parking lot at the Barn Door Hills Road Entrance. A gate now blocks the road to the former lot, for ecological reasons. Recently, the Farmington River was designated a Wild and Scenic River, including the West Branch of the Salmon Brook that runs for a mile through the refuge. The old dirt lot was prone to erosion and sediment runoff directly into the brook. The area was sown with seeds of native plants based on the recommendations of a professional botanist and the New England Wildflower Society. 

The Summit Trail was also revamped; instead of climbing straight up, it now has switchbacks, allowing a safer and easier climb. The entire trial is bordered with sizable rocks, to reduce erosion. One of this year’s summer interns meticulously measured the trails, boundaries, and natural features of the refuge through fieldwork and GIS (Geographical Information Systems) tools to update the refuge-wide mapping resources.

Changes at the refuge are not undertaken lightly, but with much consideration and study, using the most current scientific understanding and in consultation with partner organizations, including the Federal Bureau of Land Management, Connecticut DEEP, the U.S. Forest Service, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, UConn, Yale, Connecticut College, Connecticut Forest and Parks Association and more.

McLean’s funding comes from generous donations and from the endowment left by Senator McLean, which has grown through sound investments by the trustees. A grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving enabled the hiring of last summer’s interns and will support this coming year as well. There are so many reasons to give to McLean Game Refuge to preserve this vast and beautiful woodland that is home to innumerable flora and fauna and a haven to humans for recreation, exercise, photography, painting and solitude and to enable more research. Donations can be made through the website.

A mother bear and her cub in a tree.

What changes will the year ahead bring? A multi-year project to catalog the plant, animal and insect life in the refuge in a taxonomic database will continue. Look for an updated trail map on sturdy, folded paper that will be sold locally at low cost, additional trail signs with distances, kiosks at the entrances with a large map and other information and more resources on wildlife and the environment on the new website:

All photos by Connor Hogan