Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the Future and Appreciating the Past

Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge Celebrates 50 Years!

September 8, 2015

Oak savanna sunset. Photo by USFWS.
Oak savanna sunset. Photo by USFWS.

In honor of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge’s 50th birthday, we wanted to reflect on what makes this Minnesota refuge so special. Celebrated both for its wildlife and for its extraordinary recreational opportunities. This 30,700-acre refuge is defined by dynamic upland habitats that range from grasslands to oak savanna.

The refuge lies on the Anoka Sandplain and consists of a mosaic of habitats including oak savanna, wet meadow, big woods, prairie, and wetlands. Additionally, the refuge has the St Francis River meandering through it as well as several natural lakes that are popular for paddling.

Focusing On Oak Savanna

Oak savanna is partly what makes Sherburne unique. This rare plant community used to cover 27 to 32 million-acres of the midwestern landscape. Today, this globally endangered habitat is fragmented and only .02 percent remains. Sherburne has one of the largest intact parcels of oak savanna, with 95 percent of the uplands classified as oak savanna. This special habitat attracts a variety of wildlife, including red-headed woodpeckers, American bald eagles, Blanding’s turtles, wood ducks, white-tailed deer, and even an occasional American black bear or wolf.

Even though the refuge was established in 1965 under the authority of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act to promote the health and well-being of migratory birds, biologists and managers have made a dramatic shift to protect and restore this precious habitat in addition to the original focus on migratory birds.

Sherburne Refuge falls into a “transition zone” where the tallgrass prairie meets the deciduous forest. Acting as a link between these two major habitat types by providing healthy stands of native forbs and grasses with oak trees that have varying canopy cover between 10 to 75 percent. Basically, a prairie with trees!

Quiet Recreation

The Minneapolis–Saint Paul metropolitan area is located southeast of the refuge within an hour drive and has a population of approximately 3.8 million people. Although the refuge has urban development nearby, most of the surrounding communities still maintain a rural appeal and the refuge is a very quiet place with a remote persona.

Roughly 100,000 people visit Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge each year. With more than 230 bird species recorded on the refuge, birding is a big reason why. Another big reason people visit the refuge is to hunt white-tailed deer and waterfowl.

One of the most common wildlife sightings at Sherburne are sandhill cranes. The refuge boasts 40 nesting pairs that reside on the refuge through the summer and more than 9,000 cranes migrating through in the fall! The refuge is also home to 14 active American bald eagle nesting pairs. During a visit, you will likely also see wood ducks, wild turkeys, trumpeter swans, great blue herons, common loons, songbirds, and many species of turtles.

If you look carefully, you might catch a glimpse of some of less common wildlife sightings including, badgers, red-headed woodpeckers, and hognose snakes. Another special quality of the refuge is that even though it is close to the Twin Cities, the northern lights are visible at certain times of the year thanks to very low light pollution levels.

Cultural History Abounds

The Blue Hill, known historically as Blue Mound, is an icon on the refuge and is the highest point in Sherburne County. This stand-alone geographical protrusion, which rises 100-feet above the refuge, was created by a glacial event and provides a breathtaking view of the entire refuge. Make sure to walk the Blue Hill Trail and check out this cool sight when you visit. Prior to the refuge establishment, the Blue Hill was a community ski hill, complete with a lift!

You might not expect it, but the refuge is also rich with ancient Native American village sites that date back to 1300 A.D. The area was used by tribes to harvest wild rice and hunt elk and bison.

Learn more about Sherburne 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 »