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Birds, vegetation thrive in Tewaukon National Wildlife Refuge


Waterways and natural prairie vegetation are featured in Tewaukon NWR. PHOTO BY NDAREC/Kent Brick

By Maxine Herr

The flight of 750,000 snow geese each spring is a remarkable sight at the Tewaukon National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) located in southeastern North Dakota near Cayuga, but it’s only one part of what the refuge has to offer.

Established in 1945 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect migratory birds, the 8,363-acre refuge also showcases prairie grasses, wildflowers, rivers and lakes for fishing and a variety of wildlife.

“There is a lot of bird life to view and people really do like it,” says Tewaukon NWR manager Kent Sundseth. “Folks can see prairie habitats and prairie restoration projects that we have as the wildlife are using them.”

Summer months visitors can take the Prairie Lake Auto Tour, an eight-mile loop through the refuge, or enjoy walking the half-mile WhiteTail nature trail north of the refuge office and visitor center which includes an observation platform. The refuge is located in the Prairie Pothole Region, named for its many small wetlands that resemble potholes. Porcupine grass, big bluestem, and Indian grass are common at the site along with numerous songbirds dependent upon the prairies.  Plains nomadic tribes inhabited the area initially and the name Tewaukon is believed to come from an ancient tribe that means Sun God or Son of God.

Sundseth and his staff manage the refuge that provides a home for species ranging from the dainty butterfly to the elegant tundra swan. The refuge is mainly for migratory birds dependent upon wetlands and grasslands, but many species benefit from the habitat. Sundseth says nearby farmers have cooperated with the refuge for decades to help create the ideal environment. Years ago, when the focus was on growing food for wildlife and trying to prevent drought in the prairies, farmers grew crops on the land. Sundseth says the plan has shifted since now there are ample food sources from surrounding farms. Instead, they use farming techniques to restore prairie habitats.

“We’ll farm it for a while and develop a clean soil bed that we can then restore to native prairie plants,” Sundseth says. “It’s something very different – to do less for food for the wildlife but rather develop quality habitat for them.” And instead of drought-proofing the prairies, they let the wetlands cycle naturally. Local farmers are also called upon for livestock grazing, and the refuge undergoes periodic prescribed fire to help remove dead plant material to produce taller, thicker grasses and wildflowers for improved nesting habitat.

Gadwalls, blue-winged teal and many other duck species stay in the refuge until it is time to make their flight south in the fall, but year-round residents include muskrats, coyotes, badgers, gartner snakes and white-tailed deer. Visitors may even get a glimpse of a painted turtle, a red-tailed hawk or bald eagles. The habitat is also important for pollinators, Sundseth says.

Butterflies, beetles, and dragonflies abound at the refuge, providing pollination to a host of native wildflowers and food for a variety of bird species.

Deer hunting is allowed in the refuge, during the N.D. Game & Fish deer rifle season in November, and during the bow hunting season in September and after deer rifle season. Pheasant hunting is also allowed on the refuge. Anglers enjoy Lake Tewaukon and Sprague Lake year round for its walleye and northern pike, and boat fishing is available from May 1 through September 30.

The refuge offers educational opportunities through its Friends Group, Prairie Pothole Partners. The group of volunteers assists staff with activities such as a Junior Duck Stamp Contest, and “Blue Goose Day” at Wahpeton’s Chahinkapa Zoo. The volunteers are also called upon to provide conservation messages and other educational events and programs to youth. The Tewaukon NWR is actively seeking partnerships with local private land owners, area citizens, local, state and federal conservation organizations and other government agencies to advance and improve the wildlife habitat and encourage recovery of endangered species. The refuge is in the process of building a new headquarters for its visitor contact area. Refuge employees include biologists, biological technicians, law enforcement officers, and maintenance and administrative staff. n

Maxine Herr is a freelance writer from Bismarck.