In 1870, Presley A. Dorris, Henry Fitzhugh, and several other Dorris family members drove cattle and horses into the area. With lands granted under the U.S. Homestead Act, the Dorris family established a livestock ranch, which they operated for ninety years. In the 1930s, the Dorris family created Dorris Reservoir to provide water storage for their ranch.
Acquisition of lands for establishing Modoc Refuge was authorized by the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission on April 8, 1959. In 1960, the Refuge was established to manage, protect, and produce migratory waterfowl.
In November 1960, 5,360 acres (Tracts 4, 5, 6, and 7) were purchased from the Dorris family. In 1967, 187-acre Tract 16 was purchased from Tad Fender. In 1972, the State conveyed 487 acres to the Refuge. In 1973, 40 acres of Tract 1 were acquired and in 1975, the 208-acre Tract 17 was acquired from Barre Stephens. Tract 19 (103 acres) was purchased from Edward Clark in 1992. In 1995, 310-acre Tract 20 was purchased from the J.K. Hamilton Family Trust. In 1998, the 325-acre Tract 21 was purchased from Adair Brown and The American Land Conservancy. Currently, the Refuge is 7,021 acres.