Midwest Region


Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

Horicon National Wildlife Refuge: Internationally Celebrated Wetland Turns 75

March 4, 2016

Horicon Marsh. Photo by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS.
Horicon Marsh. Photo by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS.

Horicon National Wildlife Refuge marked its 75th anniversary on January 24, 2016. The refuge was established in 1941 to provide resting and breeding habitat for a number of migratory birds and waterfowl - especially the redhead duck.

Eastern Gray treefrog. Photo by Rachel Samerdyke/USFWS.
Eastern Gray treefrog. Photo by Rachel Samerdyke/USFWS.

Pair of redhead ducks. Photo by USFWS.
Pair of redhead ducks. Photo by USFWS.

Horicon Refuge encompasses the northern two-thirds of the 33,000 acre Horicon Marsh and is one of the largest intact freshwater wetlands in the U.S. This important staging area for migratory birds was added to the Ramsar Convention in 1990, making it an internationally significant wetland.

Horicon Marsh is a shallow, peat-filled lake bed scoured out of limestone by the Green Bay lobe of the massive Wisconsin glacier. The same layer of rock that forms the gentle hills to the east of the marsh extends 500 miles to where the Niagara River plunges at Niagara Falls.

As with many of our national wildlife refuges, Horicon Refuge has a rich human history.

Native people built effigy mounds between 700 A.D. and 1200 A.D. on what is now Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. These earthen burial mounds, ranging in size from 25 feet to more than 300 feet-long, were built to represent animal and geometric shapes including panther, bear, bison, birds and several others. There are mound sites near the refuge that are still visible today.

European immigrants settled on the south end of the marsh in the 1800s and logging opened the uplands for farming. In 1846, a new settlement called Hubbard’s Rapids, at the south end of the marsh, was renamed “Horicon” – which is a Mohican word for pure, clean water.

That same year, settlers built a dam on the Rock River in Horicon that changed the marsh into the largest artificial lake in the world at that time – Horicon Lake. People used the lake to float logs and move farm products by steamboat. Water from this dam also powered a saw mill and a grist mill. After the dam was removed in 1869, the lake reverted to a marsh once again.

After it reverted to a marsh again, it was then dredged and drained for farming root crops. But this endeavor failed not long after and the area fell into utter despair. A broken ecosystem with spontaneous peat fires burning for years, Horicon Marsh needed help. Thankfully, that help came from local conservationists who stepped in to save the marsh, restoring it to the international treasure that it is today.

Today, most people visit Horicon to watch wildlife and photograph the more than 300 bird species that call this beautiful landscape home. Because the refuge is within an hour’s drive to both Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin more than 840,000 people have the opportunity to visit the refuge and become regular visitors.

During a visit at the peak of spring migration, you will likely see a huge variety of ducks, warblers, herons, shorebirds, and American white pelicans and will certainly hear the calls of gray tree frogs.

Fall brings mass numbers of migrating ducks as well as staging sandhill cranes, tundra swans and, if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of trumpeter swans or a rare whooping crane.

Historical side note

During the height of the agricultural use of the area, many local companies used the thick, high quality “marsh hay” from Horicon Marsh as a source of packing material for shipping goods. Breweries in nearby Milwaukee used it for packing bottles into big cases for foreign shipment - twisting hay around each bottle. One record indicates that the Schlitz Brewery shipped one of these neatly-packed cargos of beer down to Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill, where he traveled to meet the Rough Riders.

Horicon National Wildlife Refuge is a conservation success story that shows us that it’s not too late to bring back the land and waters of the Midwest. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of local conservationists, our biologists and land managers can breathe new life into our world. Together we can make it better for wildlife and people!

Learn more about Horicon National 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.

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Last updated: June 15, 2016