Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge
Pacific Region
 
Deer Flat NWR
13751 Upper Embankment Rd Nampa, ID 83686
Phone: 208-467-9278
Fax: 208-467-1019

Refuge History

For more information, read A Desert Oasis for Wildlife and People (PDF file larger than 500 kb), a historical pamphlet issued during the refuge's centennial in 2009.

Early History

Before settlement, the area that was to become Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge was a low-lying area with many springs. In winter, herds of deer and elk came from the mountains to eat the abundant grasses. Early settlers observing these herds dubbed the area Deer Flat.

1880s homesteader clearing sagebrush near future site of Deer Flat National Wildlife RefugeThe Oregon Trail passed to the north of the refuge area, along the Boise River, and south, along the Snake River. Settlement radiated out of the Boise area once the flow of traffic slowed on the Oregon Trail and settlement in Southwest Idaho began in earnest. Needing water to irrigate crops, settlers initially restricted their settlements to the areas close to rivers. The local desert had fertile soil and only lacked water to make it productive for agriculture.

The obvious solution was to establish irrigation reservoirs. In response to this problem across the arid west, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Bureau of Reclamation in 1902. Land owners near Deer Flat, led by a Mr. J.H. Lowell, lobbied this new agency for a local reservoir that would allow them to develop their land. The lobbying efforts were successful, and in 1906, the Bureau of Reclamation began work on Deer Flat Reservoir, which would later be renamed Lake Lowell in honor of the man who got it all started.

Creating Lake Lowell

Between 1906 and 1909, crews of men built two large and two small earthen embankments, or dams, to contain the reservoir. Some members of these crews were "common drunks collected by the Nampa police force," but the dams got built.

Steam shovel used to construct embankment at Lake LowellA small-gauge train was used to haul, dump, and compact material at the Upper Dam. Horse teams were used at the Lower Dam. Workers also constructed a diversion dam on the Boise River and enlarged the New York Canal (named for the origin of its investors), which brings water from the Boise River to the reservoir.

Dedication ceremony at Lake Lowell embankmentThe reservoir was completed in 1909 at a cost of $2,500,000. Unfortunately, local landowners greeted it with outrage rather than cheers. Most of the water first used to fill the reservoir either evaporated or leaked out! Fortunately, the reservoir soon began holding water. Lake Lowell is now one of the largest off-stream reservoirs in the American west, with the capacity to irrigate over 200,000 acres of land.

Establishment of the Refuge
With the reservoir completed, President Theodore Roosevelt realized that a nearly 9,000-acre lake in an arid region would be an oasis for wildlife, so he created Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge in 1909. Roosevelt had begun the National Wildlife Refuge System when he established the first refuge at Pelican Island in Florida in 1903.

Before leaving office, he gave the Refuge System a great start by establishing 51 more refuges across the nation. On just one day, 25 February 1909, he established 17 refuges, including Deer Flat.

Deer Flat was unstaffed until 1937, when 36 islands in the Snake River were added to the refuge to protect a riparian corridor for wildlife. After subsequent land acquisitions, the refuge now includes Lake Lowell and surrounding lands, 101 islands in the Snake River between the Ada-Canyon County line in Idaho and Farewell Bend in Oregon, for a total of over 11,000 acres.

Refuge Work Crews
Pillar constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps at the Upper Embankment of Lake LowellIn the 1930's, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp was established at the Lower Dam and grew to over one hundred corpsmen, who spent many years quarrying lava rock to face both dams. Crews from the Works Projects Administration also worked on refuge projects. Some created nesting islands in the eastern portion of the lake, while others would "line up shoulder to shoulder and walk around the lake pulling or digging up...undesirable plants." Both of these programs ended with the start of World War II.

In the early 1970's, Job Corpsmen from the nearby center in Marsing, Idaho constructed many of the current refuge facilities, including the Visitor Center, shop, a residence, and facilities at the Lower Dam Recreation Area.

Last updated: October 1, 2012