Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

Urban oasis celebrates 40 years of conservation

October 7, 2016

Peterson Pond. Photo by Tina Shaw/USFWS.
Peterson Pond. Photo by Tina Shaw/USFWS.

Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, one of the National Wildlife Refuge System's best kept secrets, is celebrating its 40th birthday! Ranging from urban to rural, the refuge provides a unique opportunity to enjoy wildlife-related recreation in the shadows of skyscrapers. It's a place where coyotes, bald eagles, and trout live next door to more than three million people.

Mushroom by Courtney Celley/USFWS.
Mushroom by Courtney Celley/USFWS.

Dragonfly by Debbie Koenigs/USFWS.
Dragonfly by Debbie Koenigs/USFWS.

Grassroots community support has been the backbone of establishing and maintaining this refuge. Throughout the 20th Century, citizens tried to protect and preserve the Minnesota River Valley as public open space. Beginning in the 1930s, with Theodore Wirth and Governor Floyd B. Olson and running through the 1970s, it took a renewed citizen effort to establish this urban refuge. In 1976 all that hard work finally paid off with the establishment of the refuge.

Part of a corridor of land and water that stretches nearly 70 miles along the Minnesota River, from Bloomington to Henderson, Minnesota, the refuge is comprised of more than 14,000 acres of forested floodplain, tallgrass prairie and wetlands.  

The Glacial River Warren that formed the Minnesota River Valley played a significant role in creating ideal habitat for both humans and wildlife, visible in our abundant water resources including ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers throughout the metro area. The receding glaciers left behind three watersheds - unheard of in a state without mountains! The water brought human settlement to the area and continues to provide critical wildlife habitat today.

The Minnesota River is completely within the boundaries of our state with its dramatic “V” shape and provides the connection of the eastern and western borders via water. The confluence has always been a significant spiritual and strategic place linked to strength and survival. The classic U-shaped glacial valley is fertile ground and was inhabited early on for farming, transportation along the river, and abundant wildlife. Today, it continues to meet the needs of humans and wildlife, providing refuge, resources, commerce, and community.

In 2014, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge was identified as one of the 12 key national wildlife refuge locations to launch the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiative which seeks to engage urban communities in wildlife conservation across the country.

Minneapolis-St. Paul, and the surrounding suburbs, are different than many other metropolitan areas, because of the huge amount of protected public spaces. The 3.5 million people that live and work here are 10 minutes or less from reaching parks, trails and other green spaces. This makes Minnesota Valley a natural place for urbanites to get outside and get connected.

Each year, more than 200,000 people come to the refuge to watch birds and other wildlife. People also come to Minnesota Valley to go hiking and walking for fitness, practice their photography, participate in educational programs, or simply to escape the rush of city life. What’s especially unique about this urban oasis is that you can also hunt and fish here. Given the size and diversity of the refuge, people have plenty of space to enjoy the great outdoors in their own way.

When you visit the refuge, there’s a good chance that you’ll catch a glimpse of migratory songbirds and more than 14 species of ducks. Resident wildlife like great blue herons, great egrets, bald eagles, turkeys and deer are also common wildlife sightings. You are also likely to see frogs, toads and snakes during your visit.

An uncommon and very fun sighting at the refuge is the prairie skink. This sandy soil burrower is the only lizard found at Minnesota Valley. Look for them in restored prairie and oak savanna basking on top of rocks or logs and actively foraging for crickets, grasshoppers and spiders.

Other rare wildlife sightings include tundra and trumpeter swans, white pelicans, river otters, osprey, brook trout, and the occasional raven.

Learn more about Minnesota 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.

Learn more »