Previous to its establishment as a National Wildlife Refuge, Lake Bowdoin was a large sump or catch basin managed by the Bureau of Reclamation for early spring floods, irrigation return flows and seepage. After winters of sufficiently heavy snowfall, waters from Beaver Creek and Black Coulee drainage would pour into the Bowdoin Basin, resulting in high water elevations, flooding land above the main perimeter of the lake bed. These spring floods most always coincided with the spring waterfowl migration period. The flooding created conditions exceptionally well suited to waterfowl, both for feeding and selection of nesting sites. Since the refuge is located in an extensively used flight path of the Central Flyway and also overlapped by the Pacific Flyway, large numbers of waterfowl, marsh and shore birds remain to nest in the area. Old time residents around Bowdoin as well as early day naturalists and biologists tell of spring and summer migratory bird concentrations that were no doubt the largest in the state.
Upon its establishment, work was quickly done to develop the refuge into manageable units. Most of the early development work was through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program and consisted of the construction of dikes, large rubble masonry water control structures, shelterbelts, landscaping, fencing, building patrol and access roads, and constructing the headquarters building.
Bridge construction over the Lake Bowdoin inlet canal - 1939. (FWS Photo)
Seven pronghorn antelopes occupied the area during pre-refuge days. Once the Refuge was eastablished and fenced, and the pronghorn were protected from hunting, the herd size increased to 160 by the summer of 1949. Today the pronghorn population on Bowdoin ranges between 100 and 150 animals.
During the early years, managers of the refuge thought it would be a good management practice to provide additional food and cover for resident wildlife. They planted shelterbelts of Russian olive trees, a non-native species. Unfortunately no one knew the trees would later invade native prairie and wetland areas. The Refuge landscape today looks quite different than it did in 1939.