Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

Wisconsin sandhill crane sanctuary celebrates 40 years

April 15, 2019

Sandhill cranes in flight. Photo by USFWS.
Sandhill cranes in flight. Photo by USFWS.

We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are celebrating Fox River National Wildlife Refuge, which was established 40 years ago this week. The refuge encompasses 1,054 acres of wetland and upland habitat along the Fox River in Wisconsin. Take a moment to learn about this special place and some of the wildlife that calls it home.

It’s no accident that the primary reason Fox River was established as a national wildlife refuge in 1979 was to protect habitat for the greater sandhill crane. That’s because cranes seek out just the right balance of land and water to mate and rear their young. The majority of the refuge habitat is sedge meadow, wet prairie and shallow marsh wetlands that are dominated by all kinds of sedges and grasses. The refuge also protects fens, a rare wetland type in Wisconsin that harbors many state threatened and endangered plants. Fox River National Wildlife Refuge also has lowland forests, shrub-carr thickets, deep marshes and areas of open water making it rich in wildlife.

Well-known for their elaborate courtship dances, graceful flight and prehistoric calls, sandhill cranes are the most common cranes in North America and about 50 cranes use the refuge for nesting habitat during the summer. Later in the fall, hundreds use the refuge as a staging area during migration. As mentioned earlier, the refuge is the perfect place for cranes to nest, because they prefer to build their nests on dry land near water or attached to vegetation above the water line to “float” with rising water levels. Within 24 hours of hatching, crane chicks can walk and swim. Families - mother, father and young - typically stay together for nine to 10 months, until early in the spring following the young bird’s hatching.

Fox River is more than just wetlands though. For four decades, refuge staff have been restoring, enhancing and preserving the oak savanna upland as well. To do this, they use prescribed fire, selective timber cutting and woody shrub removal. They also seed areas with native prairie forbs and grass species and remove non-native invasive plants in the process. The team also restores wetlands by using ditch filling and stream course re-establishment. These restoration and management activities create biologically diverse and productive wildlife habitats for more than just cranes - ducks, herons, rails, songbirds, deer and turkeys also benefit.

An interesting note about this refuge is that it’s located across the road from the boyhood home of naturalist and author John Muir. Muir Park is owned by Marquette County and was designated a state natural area in 1972. The area has a variety of upland and wetland habitats surrounding the 30-acre Ennis Lake, a spring-fed kettle lake that occupies a marshy pocket in ground moraine. The area was settled in 1849 by the Ennis and Muir families and was the boyhood home of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, who admired the natural beauty of the area. Continuing the legacy of Muir, the local community and other refuge partners, work to spread Muir’s conservation ethic and inspire others to see the intrinsic value in the natural world.

While Fox River National Wildlife Refuge is closed to most public use, staff annually open the refuge for deer hunters during state archery and gun seasons. You can also join in coordinated hikes and other educational programs through partnerships with local conservation groups. Contact the refuge for more information at 920-387-2658. If you’d like to explore nearby, another great option is the Ice Age National Scenic Trail segment that traverses around Ennis Lake. Join volunteers from the Marquette County Chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance for organized hikes, trail clean-ups and other fun trail events for outdoor enthusiasts of all ages.

Another option for getting out and enjoying this beautiful landscape is the Muir Waterfowl Production Area. This 121-acre area borders the refuge and is managed by Leopold Wetland Management District as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Waterfowl production areas are open to wildlife-dependent recreation like deer and upland game hunting. The Muir Waterfowl Production Area is also a great place to sharpen your wildlife observation and photography skills. If you’re looking for a snack, you can forage for berries, mushrooms and nuts for your personal consumption. Even though there aren’t any developed trails at Muir Waterfowl Production Area, people love to hike, snowshoe and cross-country ski there too. Come find your adventure!

In the spirit of John Muir, staff at Fox River National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding area are proud to restore, protect and conserve your wildlands for the benefit of all Americans.

Learn more about Fox River National Wildlife Refuge and Leopold Wetland Management District.

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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