Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The National Wildlife Refuge System is a network of U.S. lands and waters that are managed specifically for wildlife, especially migratory birds and endangered species. This 92,873,832-acre system is comprised of 512 national wildlife refuges, 198 waterfowl production areas, and 50 coordination areas as well as 3 wildlife research centers, 41 administrative sites, 64 national fish hatcheries, and 6 fishery research stations. The Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of the Interior administers the system. In the Great Plains there are 110 national wildlife refuges on 1.8 million acres (22 percent of the number of refuges but only 2 percent of the acreage nationwide). The greatest concentration of the refuges in the Great Plains is in North Dakota and Montana. These refuges range in size from 27-acre Stump Lake (North Dakota) to 903,300-acre Charles M. Russell (Montana). Additionally, the ‘‘prairie pothole'' land (often referred to as ‘‘duck factories'') of North and South Dakota contains 84 percent of the waterfowl production areas in the country (1,107,300 acres in North Dakota and 966,000 acres in South Dakota). These waterfowl production areas are wetland areas acquired pursuant to the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Act and administered as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The National Wildlife Refuge System represents the most comprehensive wildlife resource management program in the world. The refuges are managed to maintain habitat, food supplies, and water for animals. In the Great Plains water is the prime factor determining their location. The conservation aspect of resource management governs the National Wildlife Refuge System. Hunting, growing agricultural crops, cutting hay, logging, and trapping are allowed, yet the preservation aspect dominates in seven refuges where eight units of the National Wilderness Preservation System have been designated on 64,743 acres: Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge (11,366 acres), Montana; Bend National Wildlife Refuge (20,819 acres), Montana; Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (4,635 acres), Nebraska; Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge (Salt Creek Wilderness, 9,621 acres), New Mexico; Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge (4,155 acres), North Dakota; Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge (5,577 acres), North Dakota; and Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge (Charons Garden Wilderness, 5,723 acres, and North Mountain Wilderness, 2,847 acres), Oklahoma.

Although refuges are not managed specifically for recreation, a broad range of recreational opportunities is possible on many of them; virtually all of these recreational opportunities revolve around wildlife. Activities vary with each refuge and may depend on the season. Some refuges have elaborate visitor centers and are equipped to handle a large number of visitors, but others are not. Some of the national wildlife refuges in the Great Plains are major tourist attractions and receive very heavy visitation; others are so lightly used that visitation data are not even collected.

Kansas has four national wildlife refuges. Although the Quivira (21,800 acres) is the largest, most visitation occurs at the Kirwin (10,800 acres) and the Flint Hills (40,650 acres). Kirwin is a valuable recreational resource on the North Fork of the Solomon River in north-central Kansas where a Bureau of Reclamation Dam (Kirwin Dam) impounds the river.

In Montana fourteen national wildlife refuges extend over 1,055,00 acres, but most of this acreage is in the huge Charles M. Russell Refuge, the second largest refuge in the lower forty-eight states. This refuge, named after this country's most venerable cowboy artist, extends for almost 150 miles upstream on the Missouri River above the Fort Peck Dam. Motor vehicles are permitted on over 700 miles of designated refuge road, and boating, fishing, exploring, camping (backcountry), and seasonal hunting are all popular. There are developed state park and Army Corps of Engineers recreational facilities adjacent to the refuge. A twenty-mile, thirteen-stop interpretive tour that takes about two hours provides a good overview of the refuge. The ul Bend National Wildlife Refuge borders Charles M. Russell. Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge (31,500 acres) is located in the glaciated rolling plains of northeast Montana and contains 11,366 acres of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Nebraska has eight national wildlife refuges on 148,633 acres. Most of the recreational use occurs at just one refuge, the DeSoto, which lies in both Iowa (3,500 acres) and Nebraska (4,300 acres) and includes an old oxbow lake that was once the course of the Missouri River. The section open for public use is on the Iowa side of the refuge. Sitting on the shore of DeSoto Lake is one of the finest visitor centers and museums to be found on U.S. public lands. Artifacts from the 1860s stern-wheeler Bertrand (recovered in 1968 from the sunken ship) are on display here. Other large refuges in Nebraska include the Valentine (71,500 acres) in north-central Nebraska and the Crescent Lake (45,800 acres) in western Nebraska. Nebraska's newest refuge (September 30, 1997), the Boyer Chute, began with the donation of 1,953 acres from the Papio Missouri River Natural Resource District.

In the Great Plains of New Mexico there are four national wildlife refuges on 40,100 acres. The greater portion of this acreage is in one refuge, the Bitter Lake (25,000 acres). This refuge and the Las Vegas (8,700 acres) are by far the leaders in visitation.

North Dakota has sixty-two national wildlife refuges that cover 289,300 acres. The largest of these is J. Clark Salyer (59,400 acres), named after the individual credited with being "the father of the National Wildlife Refuge System." A twenty-two-mile-long interpretive auto tour route threads its way through marshlands, grasslands, sandy hills, and forested areas. Designated as a unit of the National Canoe Trail System, a thirteen-mile stretch of the Souris River offers opportunities for exploration and wildlife observation by canoe. The refuge attracting the most visitors is the Upper Souris (32,300 acres), which is located west and upstream on the Souris River from J. Clark Salyer. Most of Chase Lake (4,155 from 4,400 acres) and 5,577 acres of Lostwood (26,900 acres) are two of the eight units of the National Wilderness Preservation System on national wildlife refuges in the Great Plains. A small refuge on the south shore of Devils Lake, Sullys Hill (1,675 acres), has a unique historical background. President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed it a national park in 1904, but in 1931 Congress transferred it to the National Wildlife Refuge System. The refuge is one of four managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service for American bison and elk.

Of the six national wildlife refuges in Oklahoma, encompassing 116,100 acres, the Wichita Mountains (59,000 acres) in southwest Oklahoma is the largest and receives the most visitors (1.5 million annually). This refuge was first set aside as the Wichita Forest Reserve in 1901. It became the Wichita Forest and Game Preserve in 1905 and received its present designation in 1934. In 1907 a fence was built and the New York Zoological Society donated fifteen bison, and in 1927 thirty head of Texas longhorns were introduced. These herds have increased to about 525 bison and 300 longhorns today. This refuge oãers as wide a range of recreational opportunities as can be found at any refuge in the country. Another very popular refuge in Oklahoma is the Salt Plains (150,000 annual visitors and 32,100 acres) in the north-central part of the state. The refuge is divided into almost equal parts of salt flats, open water, and vegetated land (marsh, woods, grassland, and cropland).

There are 48,000 acres in six national wildlife refuges in South Dakota. The largest (22,000 acres) and most visited (almost 100,000 visitors annually) is Sand Lake, twenty-five miles north of Aberdeen. The James River supplies water to the Mud and Sand Lakes, which cover over half the refuge. The Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge, with 35,000 annual visitors and covering 17,000 acres, ranks second in the state in both categories.

Very few national wildlife refuges are located in the Great Plains of Colorado, Texas, and Wyoming. Colorado has only one refuge in the Great Plains: Rocky Mountain Arsenal (17,000 acres). The Fish and Wildlife Service has only secondary jurisdiction over this refuge and will not receive primary jurisdiction until a contamination cleanup is completed. There are only four refuges totaling 17,000 acres in the Texas Plains. Muleshoe (5,800 acres) hosts one of the largest concentrations of sandhill cranes in North America from October through March. Balcones Canyonlands (3,500 acres) offers a valuable public hunting area in the Texas Hill Country. Only 5 acres of Grulla National Wildlife Refuge are in Texas; 3,230 acres are in New Mexico. In the Great Plains of Wyoming there are three refuges on 19,900 acres, most of which are accounted for by Pathfinder Refuge (16,800 acres).

See also WATER: Wetlands.

National Wildlife Refuge System website.

Charles I. Zinser Pittsburgh State University

Zinser, Charles I. Outdoor Recreation: United States National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1995.

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