Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

America’s Smallest Refuge Turns 100!

May 14, 2015

Hennepin Island is managed as a nesting colony for the state-listed threatened common tern. Photo by USFWS.
Hennepin Island is managed as a nesting colony for the state-listed threatened common tern. Photo by USFWS.

President Woodrow Wilson established Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge on this day in 1915 when he set aside Spirit Island to protect breeding habitat for native birds. Hennepin Island was later added to the refuge, increasing our national wildlife refuge system’s smallest refuge to just over half of an acre. These small patches of rock in Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Lake may not seem like much, but they are an important place for common terns, as well as other colonial nesting species like ring-billed gulls, herring gulls, and double-crested cormorants.

As Aristotle noted, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. His concept of working together being more effective than working apart, couldn’t be more true when it comes to Mille Lacs. The refuge is home to one of only five common tern breeding colonies in Minnesota and is part of a wider effort to protect them. The common tern is currently listed as a state threatened species and is a priority species for our biological team here in the Midwest Region. Mille Lacs Lake offers an abundance of minnows which common terns require to survive. Hennepin Island provides a remote and secure place to keep eggs and nestlings safe from predators such as fox or mink.

Common terns need more than just an escape from egg-stealing predators, they need an escape from people. Undisturbed areas like these small islands are essential for breeding and offer common terns a quiet nursery to raise their young. Given the special habitat needs of these nesting birds, these remote islands are closed to the public.

Birders and other wildlife watchers come to Mille Lacs Lake to view these graceful birds from a distance. With St. Cloud, Minnesota (population 66,000) just 50 miles away, protected places like this have even more educational value to help people connect with the natural world. Even though it may be small, this refuge attracts wildlife beyond that of just common terns. If you were out with a spotting scope on the shore, you might also see American white pelican and ruddy turnstone, two uncommon sightings for the area.

Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge is a truly special place. Happy birthday!

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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