Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge

Auto Tour Guide

Welcome to Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge

Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1935 as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. The rolling hills and numerous wetlands of this 26,900-acre Refuge were sculpted by the Wisconsin Glacier. This formation, often referred to as the Missouri Coteau, produced a tremendous diversity of habitat that hosts a variety of mammals, birds, and unique aquatic life. Click [here] for Auto Tour Map.


Native Prairies

In the early 1900's, the Homestead Act coaxed settlers to western North Dakota. At that time, the Lostwood area was a virgin prairie consisting mostly of grasses and forbs with few shrubs and fewer trees. To gain title to the land, homesteaders were required to live on the land for at least one year and farm a 10-40 acres of their 160-acre tract. Evidence of old cropland can be seen throughout the Refuge.

National Wilderness

The 5,577-acre Lostwood Wilderness Area, which is a part of the Refuge, was established by congress in 1975, to include the Missouri Coteau habitat in the wilderness system. Although half the Wilderness Area was once farmed, it is a unique representation of the land as it once was.

The Lostwood Wilderness Area is open for hiking and photography year-round and for cross country skiing and snowshoeing during the winter.

Restoring the Prairie

In the 1920's-30's, farming was discontinued on nearly one-third the land that is now Lostwood Refuge. Beginning in 1940, the remaining fields were farmed as a part of Refuge programs designed to provide fall feed for migrant waterfowl. Eventually, all farming ceased, permitting exotic grasses and other non-native and undesirable plants to grow and spread. Since then, native grasses and forbs have been seeded into these fields to reduce this problem. The field on the right was seeded to native grasses in 1986 and 1987.

Woody Plant Invasion

The rapidly spreading wildfires of the western North Dakota prairies were devastating for early settlers - destroying homes, possessions, and crops. These fires, though destructive, controlled the growth of woody plants. As fire was gradually eliminated to protect property, plants, such as these aspen and western snowberry (a small bush about two feet high), invaded the wetlands and prairie, causing a tremendous change in the plant community, and many prevalent species, such as Swainson's hawks and Baird's sparrows, have become uncommon or rare on the unburned prairie.

Prescribed Burning

Controlled burns, also known as prescribed burns, are a tool used by land managers to reduce western snowberry and other woody plants. The result is a habitat attractive to grassland wildlife species, such as grasshopper sparrows and ferruginous hawks. Fire also removes the old growth, which releases nutrients and stimulates new growth.

Grazing is equally important to plants and wildlife, producing many of the same results as fire. However, periods during which the land is left undisturbed by burning and grazing are also needed to maintain healthy habitats.

This is an excellent area to roam around and view Baird's and grasshopper sparrows and Sprague's pipits.


Wetlands on Lostwood Refuge have formed in a wide range of sizes and vary from fresh to highly salty, or alkaline water. This diversity attracts an extensive variety of wetland-dependant wildlife, each having particular preferences in wetlands. For example, blue-winged teal prefer fresh, temporary wetlands, while gadwall prefer more alkaline waters. Sora rail and marsh wrens like dense aquatic plant growth, while avocets and piping plovers prefer barren shorelines.

Staging Areas for Waterfowl

For rearing young, the alkaline School Section Lake is attractive to gadwalls, avocets, Wilson's phalaropes, and piping plovers, to name a few. In late summer, an exceptional "bloom" of aquatic insects occurs in this lake, attracting thousands of ducks, grebes, coots, and other waterfowl "staging" or preparing for migration.

Dead Dog Slough which acquired its name in the late 1800's or early 1900's when a pack of wild dogs began killing sheep. It, too, is important to migrating birds.

Habitat Manipulation - Good for Life?

Monitoring the effects of grazing and prescribed fires on wildlife habitat is important for determining the health of the environment and individual wildlife species. Monitoring techniques vary. For example, pairs of ducks on wetlands are counted each spring, with follow-up monitoring of nesting success. Grouse, on the other hand, are monitored according to the number of males on dancing grounds or "leks."

Sharp-Tailed Grouse

Lostwood has one of the highest known populations of sharp-tailed grouse in the United States. The males dance on the same dancing ground or lek, but each within his own territory. Females visit leks to shop for a mate. While there may be 10-40 males on each of Lostwood's 40 leks, only two or three males do the breeding on each lek.

The best time to see the grouse on the lek is late April or early May, at least a half hour before to one hour after sunrise. Notice how the lek is beaten down and scattered with numerous droppings from the males. Look for hollowed areas in each territory where the males squat down during nonactive times.

Wetlands and Ground Water

The water supply in many wetlands, such as the small one on the right, depends on rain, snowmelt, and underground water (local groundwater tables). After a succession of dry years, when little or no rain or snowmelt flows into the wetlands or seeps into the local groundwaters, the water table drops, and all the wetlands, except major lakes, go dry. These periodic dry cycles are necessary to restore the nutritive condition of prairie wetlands for waterfowl.

Piping Plovers

Piping plovers, small white shorebirds with a black neck band, nest along areas with little or no vegetation, such as beaches, sandbars, shorelines, prairie rivers, and alkali wetlands. Because of disturbance and destruction of nesting habitat, their populations in recent years have dwindled to critically low levels. As a result, the piping plover was added to the Federal endangered species list in 1986. It is now a Federal offense to disturb these birds or to destroy their habitat.

Unique Wildlife on the Coteau

This short drive across the Coteau prairie has shown you the variety of habitat and wildlife found here. Few areas in the United States have the combination of native grasslands and wetlands that produce such a diversity of wildlife plants and species. It is one of the few places remaining where you can hear the call of a Baird's or grasshopper sparrow or see Sprague's pipits and marbled godwits.


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