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Purple coneflower by Veronica Kelly/USFWS.

Purple coneflower. Photo by Veronica Kelly/USFWS.

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past:
70 years of birding, fishing and camping in Illinois

Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in Illinois is celebrating its 70th birthday! While all of America’s national wildlife refuges have special aspects, this refuge really stands out for its diverse mission and focus.

Established on August 5, 1947 in southern Illinois, this 44,000 acre national wildlife refuge is the only one in the Midwest that has congressionally mandated purposes outside of the traditional focus of wildlife conservation and recreation. Land managers are also charged with managing agriculture and industry within the boundaries of the refuge.

Crab Orchard is also home to more than 4,000 acres of congressionally designated wilderness and boasts a productive oak-hickory forest which is dominated by native species. White-tailed deer, hawks, owls, and a variety of other migratory and resident forest birds make a home here.

All four seasons afford excellent opportunities to see wildlife. During the spring, large numbers of migratory songbirds pass through the forests and grasslands of Crab Orchard and many of these same species also breed on the refuge. Spring is also a great time to see wild turkeys at the refuge. The males are often seen strutting for females and putting on quite a show, while the females may be gathered together in large groups along the wildlife drive both morning and evening.

During fall and winter, the lakes, ponds and wetlands on the refuge attract a wide variety of waterfowl and other waterbirds. White pelican numbers have been increasing here during the spring migration and have been extremely popular with visitors. American bald eagles breed on the refuge and their numbers increase during the winter when additional eagles arrive as more northern waters freeze over.

Another special resident that you may see is the secretive bobcat. Keep an eye out for them along the auto tour route in the early morning. While they can be elusive, they are seen pretty regularly! If you’re lucky, you might see an armadillo when you visit. While they are a rare sighting, armadillos have been spreading north and east from Texas since the 1850s. These rare visitors are usually kept away because of their lack of fur and a disinterest in hibernating.

The refuge has a deep connection to World War II history. About half of the refuge was the former Illinois Ordnance Plant during the war. The plant was a large industrial complex with many buildings, miles of roads and railroads that made munitions for the war effort like 500-pound bombs and landmines. During the peak of production the plant employed about 10,000 people. Today, the industrial mission still continues, but at a much smaller scale. These industrial activities have resulted in contamination with hazardous substances that have required extensive remediation and restoration efforts.

With the Carbondale-Marion metropolitan area less than a 30 minute drive away, it’s no surprise that the refuge is a hotspot for recreationalists of all interests. Last year alone, the refuge was visited almost 900,000 times! Many of those visits were from repeat visitors who use the refuge often. Half of those visits involved observing birds and other wildlife.

People also come to the refuge for great fishing and hunting. In 2016, the refuge welcomed  200,000 visits by anglers who came out to fish for largemouth bass, crappie and channel catfish. People also love to hunt for deer, upland game, furbearers and waterfowl at the refuge.

From on-site RV camping and motorized boating, to swimming, bicycling, picnicking, and even trail running, some people might confuse Crab Orchard for a national park. Given the size and multifaceted mission of the refuge, they have a little something for everyone. Check out their visitor activities and start planning your trip!

By Rick Speer and Mike Brown
Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge and Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

This series of articles is inspired by the long history of land managers and biologists who protect, restore and conserve our National Wildlife Refuge System lands. As our midwest refuges reach milestone anniversaries, we will highlight what makes them special. Look for historic photos, lesser known biological and geological tidbits and reflections from the people who know them best - refuge field staff. Learn more »

Last updated: June 8, 2020