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An owl hooted in the predawn darkness. Sandhill cranes, sounding like rusty gates, bugled in the distance, too. Later in the morning, a marsh hawk soared 20 yards overhead, seeking a meal.

Four river otters frolicked in the water and countless flocks of teal, wood ducks, mallards and Canada geese crisscrossed the sky at sunrise.

That impressive assemblage of wildlife was seen or heard in just a couple hours one recent morning at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge near Zimmerman, Minn., an hour northwest of the Twin Cities. It’s one of 13 national wildlife refuges in Minnesota, which all told cover 359 square miles. Not as well known, perhaps, as state or regional parks, the wildlife refuges offer citizens a unique portal to nature.

“The experience you get on a refuge is different from a state or county park,’’ said Maggie O’Connell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional visitor services chief in Minneapolis. “It’s usually not as developed. With refuges, you get a glimpse of what the landscape was like in the past. If you go to Glacial Ridge [refuge in northwestern Minnesota] and walk out in the prairie, you get a sense of what the prairie felt like before settlement.”

The refuges were set aside primarily for wildlife habitat. So most recreation is wildlife-oriented. Visitors usually won’t find campgrounds, playgrounds or developed trail systems. Hunting and sometimes fishing is common, in season. But wildlife observation is a major activity.

“A significant portion of our visitors are hunters, but a significant number are bird watchers, wildlife observers and hikers,” said Greg Dehmer, assistant manager at Sherburne, which was established in 1965. The refuge gets about 120,000 visits yearly.

The 13 wildlife refuges in Minnesota are among 550 refuges nationwide covering 150 million acres and visited by more than 41 million people annually.

“They are like pearls on a necklace,” said Dehmer.

Across the nation, the refuges are home to more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species and more than 200 fish species.

In Minnesota, the national refuges run the gamut from prairie to forest to wetland. They also range from Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, large portions of which are in the bustling Twin Cities metro area, to Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in remote far northwestern Minnesota.

Minnesota also has the smallest refuge in the nation: The Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, two tiny islands in Lake Mille Lacs totaling about a half acre. One is a nesting colony for the state-listed threatened common tern. Both are off-limits to the public, a rarity.

Funding to buy refuge lands comes from a variety of sources, but hunters have played a major role. The Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, which includes federal duck stamp dollars, paid for about 89,000 acres of the 230,000 refuge acres in Minnesota.

For visitors, the hardest choice is deciding which to explore.

“It’s hard to pick a favorite — each have unique qualities,” said Rick Speer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assistant refuge supervisor for Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Sort of like pearls.

Here’s a snapshot. (See accompanying map for locations.)


Home to 300 bird species, including buffleheads, tundra swans, mallards, geese and grebes, Agassiz’s 61,000 acres of wetlands and upland habitat is a waterfowl and waterbird paradise, and includes 4,000 acres of bog designated as wilderness.

Big Stone

With more than 11,000 acres of wetlands, tallgrass prairies and river habitat, Big Stone is named for the region’s distinctive granite outcrops. Hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing are popular.

Crane Meadows

About 2,000 acres near Little Falls established in 1992 to preserve a large, natural wetland complex. It features a unique sand plain wetland/upland complex with a mosaic of sedge meadow wetlands — the largest unaltered one in the state — as well as shallow lake, oak savanna, prairie, shrub land and forest habitats.

Glacial Ridge

One of the state’s newest national refuges, established in 2004, its 22,000 acres offer visitors a host of wildlife to see, including waterfowl, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, shorebirds and many other species. Opportunities abound for hunting and wildlife watching.

Hamden Slough

The 3,210-acre refuge lies on the eastern edge of the Prairie Pothole Region and was established in 1989 for the protection of waterfowl and other migratory birds. Greater prairie chickens are among the attractions.

Mille Lacs

The oldest and smallest national refuge in the state, and the only one completely off-limits to the public.

Minnesota Valley

A corridor of 14,000 acres of land and water stretching nearly 70 miles along the Minnesota River from Bloomington to Henderson, the refuge has multiple units offering a variety of outdoor experiences. Coyotes, bald eagles and waterfowl are among the critters that call it home.

Northern Tallgrass Prairie

Established in 2000 to address the loss of America’s grasslands and the decline of grassland wildlife, the refuge was created to permanently preserve and restore some of the northern tallgrass prairie. It currently includes 49 parcels totaling over 5,000 acres.

Rice Lake

The refuge is centered around Rice Lake, usually choked with wild rice, which attracts tens of thousands of waterfowl. In October 1994, more than 1 million ducks were observed, the state record for the most waterfowl seen in one location at one time.


Nearly 2,200 acres of wetlands, hardwood forest, and tallgrass prairie and 7 miles of walking trail offer visitors a view of wildlife, including trumpeter swans.


Almost 31,000 acres of lakes, marshes, meadows and oak savanna are home to wildlife ranging from sandhill cranes to Blanding’s turtles. Hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing are popular.


With its rolling forested hills interspersed with shallow lakes, rivers, marshes and shrub swamps, this refuge is in the transition zone between forest and prairie and counts 258 species of birds. Wildlife watching is considered exceptional year-round.

Upper Mississippi River

Spanning 261 river miles in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, the refuge was established in 1924 for fish, wildlife and plants and a breeding place for migratory birds. Bordered by steep wooded bluffs that rise 100 to 600 feet above the river valley, the refuge offers spectacular scenery and productive fish and wildlife habitat.

For more information on Minnesota’s national wildlife refuges, see

Doug Smith • 612-673-7667

Twitter: @dougsmithstrib