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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The Halloween pennant dragonfly thrives at Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. Mammals, insects and fish all benefit from habitat work at refuges. © Jack Bartholmai
The Halloween pennant dragonfly thrives at Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. Mammals, insects and fish all benefit from habitat work at refuges. © Jack Bartholmai

October 2003

Giving refuge

Some of the most precious jewels of America's wild heritage are held in trust in our national wildlife refuges. Celebrate their centennial.

Chris Madson

The blue goose in Badgerland

For almost as long as there have been kings, there have been preserves set aside to provide game for sport. A thousand years B.C., Assyrian rulers were keeping "parks" where game animals were fed and sometimes stocked for the pleasure of the ruler. A Roman hunter wrote of "reserved places" in Macedonia "full of amenities for the preservation of game." In 812 A.D., the emperor Charlemagne ordered that "our woods and forest be well kept." He directed his estate steward "to preserve well our beasts of chase in the forests, and to protect hawks' nests."

Parts of England's Magna Carta controlled the use of the king's forests, including game animals and raptors. The rules were published in 1225 as the Charter of the Forest, an outline of hunting regulations and land management rules for this far-flung hunting preserve and refuge.

In 1275, the Italian Marco Polo found his way to the court of Kublai Khan in China. Kublai was an ardent hunter who kept many game preserves. "The Khan has a great palace," Polo later wrote, "which he is fond of visiting, because it is surrounded with pieces of water and streams, which are the haunt of many swans. There is also a fine plain, where are found in great numbers, cranes, pheasants, partridges, and other birds. He derives the highest degree of amusement from sporting with gerfalcons and hawks, the game being here in vast abundance."

By this time, the Chinese had already begun a system of wildlife management. "Near to this city," Polo continued, "is a valley frequented by great numbers of partridges and quails, for whose food the Great Khan causes millet and other grains suitable to such birds, to be sown along the sides of it every season, and gives strict command that no person shall dare to reap the seed; in order that the birds may not be in want of nourishment."

So the concept was at least 2,500 years old by the time it crossed the Atlantic with English settlers. The history books that treat the winning of the New World spend little time on hunting as a cultural phenomenon, but it's fairly clear that many of the newcomers from Europe found hunting to be one of America's great new freedoms. After centuries of being denied access to the king's forest, new Americans reveled in the abundance and proximity of game.

Migrating birds like sandhill cranes find breeding grounds and stopovers at national refuges. © Robert Queen
Migrating birds like sandhill cranes find breeding grounds and stopovers at national refuges.

© Robert Queen

This enthusiasm was soon reflected in local shortages of wildlife. In 1646, the town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island established a closed season in response to a decline in deer numbers. By 1672, at least one observer reported that flocks of passenger pigeons in New England were "much diminished" from the numbers he had seen 50 years earlier.

In all too many cases, the sudden freedom to exploit natural resources leads to exhaustion of those resources. As the colonies prospered and won their independence, there were signs that American wildlife faced that fate. A certain kind of citizen was convinced that he had a right to take all the land had to give wherever he found it. That view led to the extinction of the eastern bison and elk; the great auk and Carolina parakeet; the Labrador duck and heath hen.

However, from the beginning, there were people who saw the land in a different light. They took a new approach to the concept of the king's deer. In their view, the king held English game and game refuges in trust for the people. They argued that, in the new nation, the people stood in place of the king. When it came to the future of wildlife in the republic, that meant the people as a group had a right "and a responsibility" to protect game just as the nobility had protected it in the Old World.

The impulse to create wildlife refuges in America took some time to emerge, but as the nineteenth century dawned, a few visionaries began to recognize that hunting regulations by themselves weren't going to be enough to save the continent's wildlife heritage. In 1832, artist George Catlin came back from the Mandan villages on the upper Missouri River with a suggestion for his countrymen: "A nation's park, containing man and beast in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!"

Catlin's prairie park never happened, but Congress did see fit to set aside Arkansas Hot Springs as a national reserve in 1832. In 1864, the federal government granted the Yosemite valley to the state of California "for public use, resort and recreation." Yellowstone, the nation's first park, followed in 1872. The fight over preservation of wildlife in Yellowstone lasted for at least a decade and helped crystallize American opinion on wildlife conservation. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison set aside the Afognak Forest and Fish Culture Reserve in the Aleutians, a refuge not only for spawning salmon but for a host of marine mammals and sea birds.

A federal fisheries biologist tracks paddlefish movements on the Mississippi. Radio telemetry helps determine which portions of the vast river paddlefish use on breeding and feeding runs. © U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, La Crosse District
A federal fisheries biologist tracks paddlefish movements on the Mississippi. Radio telemetry helps determine which portions of the vast river paddlefish use on breeding and feeding runs.

© U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, La Crosse District

But the official beginning of the nation's wildlife refuge system was March 14, 1903, when Theodore Roosevelt set aside a small island near Sebastian, Florida, as a federal bird reservation. Pelican Island supported thousands of nesting water birds, including herons, egrets and roseate spoonbills that were being slaughtered across America to provide plumes for ladies' hats. Before he left office, Roosevelt used his authority to create refuges in Florida, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Montana, and Oregon.

The history of America's wildlife refuges has one other milestone worth remembering. In the 1920s, Congress fought a long-running battle over the concept of federal waterfowl refuges. The debate pitted hunters against preservationists, and the confrontation might have scuttled the entire idea if it hadn't been for two almost-forgotten Congressmen. Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota and Congressman August Andresen of Minnesota sponsored the bill that finally authorized a system of waterfowl refuges in 1929. The Norbeck-Andresen Migratory Bird Conservation Law provided a foundation for the modern refuge system.

Today, there are 95 million acres in the national wildlife refuge system, providing habitat for species as rare as the whooping crane and black-footed ferret, as common as the mallard. From the Gulf of Mexico to the north slope of Alaska, the refuges offer crucial way stations on the great migrations for all the far travelers, large and small. They also offer sanctuaries for people, a combination of spectacle and quiet that allows us to recharge, re-create.

And so we celebrate the 100th anniversary of an impulse that is 3,000 years old – the urge to hold onto something wild. It's an old idea. But a very good one.

Outdoor essayist Chris Madson edits Wyoming Wildlife for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Reprinted with permission.

The blue goose in Badgerland
The national refuge system, symbolized with markers showing a stylized Canada goose, is an active partner in providing Wisconsin's mix of outdoor recreation for people as well as resting areas and breeding grounds for fish and wildlife. Most people know the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, but in fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages eight wildlife refuges, two fish hatcheries, two wetland management districts and nine other field offices in Wisconsin.

From north to south, the Whittlesey Creek National Refuge, three miles west of Ashland is a coastal wetland at the head of Chequamegon Bay. Established just four years ago, 97 acres of an envisioned 540-acre parcel protects shallow coastal lands, springs and wetlands that provide spawning grounds for salmon and the anadromous strain of brook trout called "coaster" trout. Migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and neotropical songbirds rest here on their transcontinental journeys. So should you! The refuge office in the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center provides a relaxing spot to learn about the region, see displays about local wildlife, and read about the geological forces that shaped this rugged area.

Fisheries resource offices in Ashland, Green Bay and La Crosse provide services to tribal governments, national parks, refuges and forests in restoring native fish populations, improving fish habitat and controlling aquatic nuisances. These offices also coordinate work with state, regional and local conservation agencies in managing wetlands, waterway projects and shoreland improvements that enhance habitat for fish and wildlife.

The Iron River National Fish Hatchery between Ashland and Superior raises lake trout and brook trout eggs, fingerlings and broodstock to bolster fish populations in Lake Superior, tribal waters and regional stocking.

The St. Croix Wetland Management District just west of New Richmond, not far from the Twin Cities, manages 7,500 acres of wetlands and grasslands on more than 40 properties in western Wisconsin. This eight-county area holds breeding grounds and resting areas that are widely used by resident and migratory waterfowl that move from the potholes of western Canada and the plains on their journeys.

A cluster of three offices just east of Green Bay in New Franken provide ecological services, fisheries resources and law enforcement aid on Lake Michigan, tribal waters and national properties along the coasts in eastern Wisconsin, western Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. The offices enforce national wildlife trade laws, species protection laws, take part in coastal recovery projects, research alternatives to commercial fishing gear, survey fish populations and help test for lake contaminants, among other duties.

Gravel Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge (also called the Wisconsin Islands Wilderness Area) constitute the smallest federal refuges in the state. They are just off the tip of Door County. Most of the vegetation on Gravel Island, just four acres and on Spider Island, 23 acres, has been lost to wind and wave action. Remaining downed trees form habitat for a few dabbling ducks, gulls and cormorants. The Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge consists of the two-acre Hog Island just east of Washington Island. It was set aside as a bird nesting colony in 1913 A few colonies of red-breasted mergansers, double-crested cormorants and herring gulls nest here. None of these small, remote properties is developed or has improved landings. Consequently, public visits are discouraged.

Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wood and Juneau counties forms a sprawling 43,600-acre mix of wetlands, uplands, bottomland forests and grasslands. The refuge boasts more than 230 species of birds including rare grassland, wetland and forest species. An international project is trying to establish a breeding population of whooping cranes that will migrate from Necedah to Florida. Other rare species on the road to recovery here include Karner blue butterflies, the massasauga rattlesnake and bald eagles.

The thousand-acre Fox River National Wildlife Refuge is managed in concert with the 21,417-acre federal Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. The Department of Natural Resources manages an adjoining southern state portion of the Horicon Refuge. These refuges provide sanctuary, breeding ground and outdoor recreation. The Horicon area is the world's largest freshwater cattail marsh. It provides a fueling, feeding and resting area for more than a million migrating Canada geese each year. Rookeries and other nesting areas host thousands of ducks, herons, shorebirds and smaller populations of sandhill cranes.

The area draws more than 400,000 people annually who marvel at the sights and sounds of so many waterfowl. The surrounding wetlands and fields also provide excellent hunting opportunities in season. The Leopold Wetland Management District with headquarters in Mayville, east of Waupun, manages 48 waterfowl production areas in 16 counties of southeastern Wisconsin. The specialty here is preserving critical habitat for migrating waterfowl and songbirds.

The Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge in the Mississippi River Valley of western Wisconsin includes roughly 6,200 acres of sand prairies and marshes that are used by migrating shorebirds, waterfowl and a host of other species. The habitat here is prime for nesting bald eagles, osprey, black terns and pelicans.

A complex of refuges, a fish health office (La Crosse), and law enforcement staff work with state officials in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. The whole Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge covering almost a quarter million acres stretches over 261 river miles from Winona, MN south to Rock Island, IL. Along the wide, shallow and meandering Mississippi River floodplain marshes, islands, channels, bottomland forests, sand prairies and bluffs mingle and flow. More than 134 fish species find refuge here. The area hosts 16 major heron colonies and more than 120 bald eagles. Some portions of the backwaters are closed areas without roads or much development. By contrast, other parts of the river are highly traveled by barge traffic, commercial fishers, sport anglers, skiers, canoeists and campers.

– compiled from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheets