Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

The only international wildlife refuge is turning 15

December 21, 2016

Winter on the refuge. Photo by Dick Skoglund/USFWS.
Winter on the refuge. Photo by Dick Skoglund/USFWS.

On this day in 2001, Congress established our first and only international wildlife refuge. In less than two decades, the habitats and fisheries that once defined Detroit River as degraded are now world class. Let’s take a moment to celebrate the conservation gem that Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge has become in 15 years.

Golden eagle. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS.
Golden eagle. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS.

Swainson's hawk. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS.
Swainson's hawk. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS.

Located along the lower Detroit River and western Lake Erie, the refuge extends from southwest Detroit to the Ohio border and has nearly seven million people within a 45-minute drive. One of the country’s 14 priority urban refuges, Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge has become a national leader in using public-private partnerships to make nature part of everyday urban life.

The refuge was established as a result of binational efforts from politicians, conservation leaders, and local communities to build a sustainable future for the Detroit River and western Lake Erie ecosystems. Since 2001, the refuge has grown relationships with industry, academia, local communities and conservation partners that benefit both wildlife and people.

In 2004, the refuge acquired Humbug Marsh, a 410–acre unit situated in Trenton and Gibraltar, Michigan. The parcel represents the last mile of undeveloped shoreline along the U.S. mainland of the Detroit River and contains critical habitat for many rare fish and wildlife species. The site has also been designated as Michigan’s only Wetland of International Importance by the 1971 Ramsar Convention.  

Most people visit the refuge to fish and hunt, but also to bird, kayak, and hike. People love the refuge because it offers outdoor enthusiasts options close to home. An annual event that has become a favorite for the community is the Pointe Mouillee Waterfowl Festival that attracts more than 8,000 people! The hard work is definitely paying off for Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge when it comes to outreach and public support. They even boast more than 2,000 local students participating in World Wetlands Day.

Whether it’s raptors in the fall, waterfowl in the winter or songbirds in the spring, migratory birds are one of the most common wildlife you can spot while visiting the refuge. Detroit River is also part of the ‘Walleye Capital of the World,’ so you are more than likely to have good luck fishing.

The lucky and observant birders who come out to the refuge may catch a glimpse of a rare golden eagle or Swainson's hawk. What an awesome sight so close to the city!

Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge is a bit of a time capsule when it comes to plant diversity. Refuge staff initiated a survey this past year of a few of the largest remaining forests in the downriver area, including the renowned Humbug Marsh. The results were surprising! The area, which was nearly developed into hundreds of homes, a marina, and a golf course in the late 1990s is providing biologists with a valuable snapshot into past habitats.

To understand what features of the forests are most important to conservation, the researchers referenced what the forests were like before the land was settled and converted to agriculture about 200 years ago. They “dusted off” old land records that dated back to 1817 when Joseph Fletcher, of the Federal General Land Office, walked what is today known as Humbug Marsh. While the purpose of these records was originally to document timber values, they provide a baseline for biologists today. A clear sequence was described of the ownership changes that led to degradation of the native forests due to farming, grazing, and cutting over the years. They focused on describing in detail how the original native, healthy forest was a product of the soil, natural drainage, and inferred Native American land use. They then described what features of the forest persisted after 200 years of intensive land use by French and then other European settlers.

Refuge biologist Greg Norwood notes that, “the species that make up places like Humbug Marsh are perhaps analogous to collections of books in a library – there are those shelves made up of mostly old, rare books that have somehow been left unchanged, collecting dust together for decades.”

“There are also shelves that are more or less represented by mass-produced, commonly-found books that were added recently, which are analogous to the invasive species and generalists. Finally, there are, of course, some shelves that are virtually devoid of books altogether, that are analogous to very few species,” continues Norwood.

It was recently discovered that Humbug Marsh is home to a rare grass-like plant called the hairy-fruited sedge (Carex trichocarpa) and an orchid species called oval ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes ovalis). Records show that these plants have never been found in Wayne County, which has some of the oldest botanical records in Michigan. One sedge species (Carex squarrosa) identified on Grosse Ile had not been found since 1932. The Shumard oak, having never been recorded on the island, was determined to actually be a dominant tree on the remaining forest on the island. In fact, Grosse Ile is one of the strongholds for the Shumard oak in southeast Michigan, a Michigan State-listed special concern species.

Refuge biologists and managers have been collaborating with partners to reestablish lake sturgeon to their historic range since 1999. Some success was achieved in 2001 when sturgeon reproduction was documented in U.S. waters of the Detroit River for the first time in 30 years. Recently, sturgeon spawning reefs have been constructed off Fighting Island and just upstream of Grassy Island. In both cases, sturgeon spawned on the reefs the very next spring, including other rock-loving spawners like lake whitefish, walleye, and others.

Learn more about Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge:

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.

Learn more »