Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

From seedless persimmons to river otters: 50 years of conservation in Indiana

October 6, 2016

Muscatatuck River. Photo by Susan Harner/USFWS.
Muscatatuck River. Photo by Susan Harner/USFWS.

Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge in Indiana is turning 50 today! At just under 8,000 acres in size, this relatively small national wildlife refuge has been quietly going about the business of conservation for decades.

Established in 1966 to provide resting and feeding areas for waterfowl during their annual migrations. Muscatatuck was the first national wildlife refuge in the state of Indiana and has played a vital role in conserving wildlife within the state. More than 280 species of birds have been seen at the refuge, which explains why the area is recognized as a “Continentally Important” bird area.

In the 50 years since Muscatatuck was established, our biologists and land managers have played a vital role in providing essential habitat for wildlife, including the previously state-endangered North American river otter. By 1942, breeding populations of river otters had disappeared across the state, largely due to overharvesting and habitat loss. The tides started to turn in favor of river otters when in 1994, Indiana listed otters as endangered and a reintroduction effort began at Muscatatuck. In 1995, our refuge served as the first release site for the reintroduction of North American river otters in Indiana and our staff worked hand in hand with Indiana Department of Natural Resource biologists to bring back the otter. Today, rivers otters are abundant throughout the state and considered a conservation success story.

The refuge also played a role in the national effort to restore a migratory population of whooping cranes to eastern North America by providing a stop-over site for Operation Migration when the whooping cranes were first led from Wisconsin to Florida. Whoopers still stop by the refuge during migration, with some lucky visitors getting the chance to see these majestic birds. The refuge is also popular with sandhill cranes. In the past few years, we reached record numbers of more than 30,000 wintering at the refuge.

Muscatatuck is situated between Indianapolis, Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky, and Cincinnati Ohio. With more than 1.4 million people about an hour away, the refuge is a favorite destination. People love to get out and explore the natural world at the refuge year-round, with staff welcoming more than 150,000 visitors a year and hosting educational programs that aim at getting people outside to learn about the refuge. About 60,000 people come each year to watch wildlife and almost an additional 7,000 people come to fish. We love welcoming folks to the refuge and have a wonderful team of volunteers that devote about 10,000 hours a year to providing a safe and fun experience. Learn more about how you can join the volunteer team.

For a relatively small national wildlife refuge, Muscatatuck has a wide variety of habitats, including forests and grasslands to lakes, marshes, creeks and other riverine habitats.  As you can imagine, this leads to a huge diversity of wildlife like Indiana bats, copperbelly water snakes, bobcats, marsh birds, and warblers.

In addition to waterfowl and warblers, white-tailed deer and wild turkeys are commonly seen throughout the year. Even though river otters are thriving at the refuge, they can be elusive. The best time to catch a glimpse is during the winter months. Watching them dive through holes in the ice to catch fish and eat their prey on the ice can be quite a sight!

Sometimes unexpected birds show up at the refuge, especially after big storms and birders come from all over the country to check them off their life lists. This year a black rail was spotted which created a stir among the birding community. Other rare sightings include white pelicans, loons, long tailed ducks and even black scoter.

An extra tid bit that not many refuges can boast about is a great piece of cultural history, the refuge is the home of the seedless persimmon! Thanks to the restoration efforts of The Muscatatuck Wildlife Society you can visit a cabin once owned by Carl Meyers. Meyers was famous for propagating seedless persimmons. A few of the seedless persimmon trees still remain on the refuge.

Learn more about Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/muscatatuck/

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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