Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

80 Years of Habitat Conservation at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge

October 30, 2015

East Twin Lake in mid-October. Photo by Walt Ford/USFWS.
East Twin Lake in mid-October. Photo by Walt Ford/USFWS.

In the 1930s, the Midwest was hit hard by drought and the economic free fall of the Great Depression. In the midst of all of this human hardship and uncertainty, Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge was born. Established on October 31,1935, during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, this 18,000 area refuge was established to preserve valuable habitat for waterfowl. Today, Roosevelt’s vision of habitat conservation is still alive and well.

For more than a thousand years, the Rice Lake area has been home to Native Americans, due to the bountiful wild rice and abundant wild game. Today, Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge continues to provide habitat for migrating and resident waterfowl.

The American Bird Conservancy designated Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge as a Globally Important Bird Area because of the importance of the lake and its wild rice as a food source to migrating waterfowl, especially ring-necked ducks. In 1994, refuge biologists observed more than 1 million ducks on the lake in mid-October, the largest concentration of waterfowl ever recorded in the state of Minnesota.

The refuge also offers many recreational opportunities for visitors. You can explore more than 7,000 acres of forest at the refuge. Most people visit Rice Lake for the wildlife viewing and wildlife photography opportunities along the 13-mile wildlife drive. The northern hardwood forest along the wildlife drive is dominated by quaking and big-toothed aspens, red and sugar maples, paper birch, basswood, and red oak. There are two additional scenic lakes on the refuge that offer a tranquil setting. Other popular activities include hiking, fishing, and hunting.

At 3,600 acres, the refuge’s namesake, Rice Lake, might sound like a great place for boating and fishing. To the contrary, it is quite shallow and averages no more than two-feet deep! Because of this, the lake is closed to all recreational boating and fishing with the exception of Ojibwe rice-harvesters.

You will likely see white-tailed deer, trumpeter swans, porcupine and ring-necked duck during a visit to the refuge. While gray wolf and black bear are not seen as often, they are occasionally seen by refuge visitors. Bald eagles can often be found in large numbers during the spring and fall migration, and some even nest here.

Moose occasionally wander through the refuge, but are rarely seen. Telltale tracks let staff and visitors know that moose pass through. Unfortunately, the dwindling moose population in Minnesota has greatly diminished our opportunity to even see those elusive tracks the last couple of years. Another infrequent wildlife sighting is the bobcat, mostly due to its shy nature and nocturnal lifestyle.

While Rice Lake is now the focal point of the refuge, it was at one time the bane to successful ranching, as it was too wet for grazing or haying with mechanized equipment. In 1918, an attempt was made to drain the lake by hand digging a ditch. Nature quietly won that battle.

Another enterprise around the lake harvested marsh grass for making carpets from about 1897 until 1936. It is reported that at the company's peak, they harvested 2,400 tons of grass annually and employed up to 200 men. Much of the northern end of the refuge was formerly owned by the carpet company.

Just 60 miles away from the Duluth, Minnesota - Superior, Wisconsin area, Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge makes for a great day trip and a perfect way to connect with nature. 

Learn more and plan your visit at

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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