Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

Seeing Landscapes Over Time at Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge

May 21, 2015

Ball cactus flower on granite outcrops. Photo by USFWS.
Ball cactus flower on granite outcrops. Photo by USFWS.

Happy 40th birthday Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge! Acquired as part of the Big Stone-Whetstone River Project of Minnesota and South Dakota, this refuge was created in 1975 and consists of 11,586 acres of tallgrass prairie, wetlands, granite outcrops, and river woodlands. In honor of this anniversary, we wanted to offer up a few highlights of what makes Big Stone so special.

We focus much of our attention as land managers and biologists on wildlife and providing the basics of food, water and shelter for them. We often see our refuge lands through a “production” lens, in terms of increasing the diversity and population numbers of wildlife. Protecting intact habitats, in some cases, and totally rebuilding or restoring them in others is one direct way we can increase wildlife productivity. We fight to keep dirt on the ground, be it a remote refuge in Alaska or an urban refuge in the heart of a metropolitan area. Here in the Midwest, we see ducks and wetlands, big rivers and waterfowl when we look out at a landscape. We see potential. We see wildlife habitat instead of row crops or development.

Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge has a back-story running concurrent to the story of habitats and wildlife. It has a geologic story. The name “Big Stone,” itself, brings to mind classic discussions of the dynamic nature of our planet and how these larger forces have shaped, and continue to shape, Earth over time. Located at the headwaters of the Minnesota River, Big Stone tells part of a deep geological story of ice sheets, receding glaciers and subsequent floods.

The Minnesota River Valley was carved by the glacial River Warren, a prehistoric river that drained Lake Agassiz in central North America between 11,700 and 9,400 years ago. This glacial river was named after General G. K. Warren, a civil engineer and prominent general in the Union Army who surveyed the valley in support of the transcontinental railroad.

A unique visual and geological feature of the refuge are the lichen covered, granite outcrops for which the refuge was named. Most of the granite outcrops are highly visible from the refuge auto tour route and are often framed by blooming wildflowers in the spring and summer months.

Waterfowl, especially Canada geese, mallard and blue-winged teal are common wildlife sightings at Big Stone. Bald eagles nest here as well and are a local favorite. Visitors also see white-tailed deer, ring-necked pheasant, and American White Pelicans throughout the refuge.
If you are patient and know where to look, you might also catch a glimpse of river otters, snowy owls, badgers, and even the occasional moose.

Because of the geologic story that is written into the landscape, Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge packs a huge variety of habitats into a relatively small package. This makes it special. From prairie potholes and remnant tallgrass prairie, to riverine and shallow lake habitats, Big Stone is a dynamic and special place.

Historic photo by USFWS.

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.

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