Michigan Islands National Wildlife Refuge is comprised of eight islands in Lakes Michigan and Huron. Gull, Pismire, Hat and Shoe, are part of the Beaver Archipelago in Lake Michigan and are managed by Seney NWR. Thunder Bay, Sugar, and Scarecrow Islands located in Thunder Bay near Alpena, Michigan and Big and Little Charity Islands are located in Saginaw Bay are managed by Shiawassee NWR.
Michigan Islands Refuge was established as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. Shoe Island (one acre), Pismire Island (two acres), and Scarecrow Island (seven acres) were the first to be acquired in 1947 and were designated as Federal Wilderness Areas in 1970. Thunder Bay Island (218 acres) and Gull Island (230 acres) were acquired from the U.S. Coast Guard in the 1960s. Hat Island (11 acres) was procured from The Nature Conservancy in 1994. In 1943, during World War II, Hat Island was bombed for target practice by the U.S. Navy. At that time, Hat Island was burned and partially covered in tar reducing its vegetation, but once left to natural processes, trees, other vegetation, and wildlife eventually returned. Big and Little Charity were acquired in 1999 through a Natural Resources Damage Assessment agreement with the General Motors Corporation. During the 1600s, the Charity Islands were used as an overnight stopping point by early French explorers such as Jean Nicolet and Robert de LaSalle and have been a refuge for boaters stranded during storms on Lake Huron. The most recent island added to the refuge is Sugar Island (143 acres), which was acquired from The Nature Conservancy in 2010.
In 2000, Scarecrow, Sugar and Thunder Bay Islands were designated part of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve. The designation gives federal protection to more than 100 well-preserved shipwrecks that litter the bottom of Thunder Bay. Once part of a major shipping channel, this 448-square-mile sanctuary is the first national marine sanctuary in fresh water and is located in an area that was known as “Shipwreck Alley” in the 1800s.
Big Charity and Thunder Bay Islands, located in Saginaw Bay, have lighthouses and keepers quarters. The lighthouse and surrounding property on these two islands are either privately owned or still maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard and are not part of the refuge. At one time, Gull Island had a lighthouse station as well. The Thunder Bay lighthouse, which was constructed in 1857, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
More than 150 species of birds and four species of mammals - raccoon, coyote, deer mouse and snowshoe hare - have been observed using the islands. Several other species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles are suspected of using the islands because they are present in the surrounding areas and the islands provide suitable habitat. The larger islands host the greatest number and diversity of species. Over the past ten years, these islands have supported numerous species of colonial nesting waterbirds such as ring-billed and herring gulls, great blue herons, great egrets, black–crowned night herons, double-crested cormorants and Caspian and common terns. Other bird species found breeding on these islands, include spotted sandpipers, killdeer, and a variety of waterfowl, raptors and songbirds.
Michigan Islands National Wildlife Refuge has exceptional value to colonial nesting waterbird conservation in the Upper Great Lakes region and specific islands have been proposed as Important Bird Areas by The Audubon Society for species such as black-crowned night heron (Gull and Scarecrow Islands) and Caspian tern (Hat Island).