Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

80 years of protecting Mississippi’s bluffs, vistas and sand prairies

August 19, 2016

Blazing star at Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS.
Blazing star at Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS.

Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge celebrates their 80th birthday this weekend. Nestled along the eastern edge of the Mississippi River, this refuge was established by Executive Order in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide resting and breeding habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife. The refuge is a significant part of the Mississippi flyway, providing more than 6,446 acres of wetland, river and sand prairie habitats.

Trempealeau Refuge is within the Driftless Area or Paleozoic Plateau, a part of North America that escaped the slowly gliding ice of the glacial period of the Paleozoic-age, 500,000 years ago. Today, the refuge offers a glimpse of these rare habitats and breathtaking bluffs and vistas of the deep gorge of the Mississippi River that resulted from this geologic period.

The Trempealeau prairie, a diverse sea of native grasses and forbes, once covered hundreds of square miles. The last large, intact remnant still blooms under the protection of the refuge today. The prairie is like the perfect book with exciting new blooms in every chapter, you just want to keep reading or coming out to see what will be blooming next! In the spring, pasque flowers and prairie smoke paint the landscape with their bright blooms. Throughout the summer, wild lupine, butterfly weed, and bergamot make a new palette. Later into the fall, purple spears of blazing star and hoary vervain edge the sky, while big and little bluestem sway in the wind.

The refuge is also part of the Upper Mississippi River Floodplain Wetlands of International Importance, a 300,000 acre designation that includes federal and state lands and waters of the Upper Mississippi River floodplain from near Wabasha, Minnesota to north of Rock Island, Illinois. In 2010, the floodplain became the 27th U.S. wetland designated under the Convention on Wetlands and is part of an international treaty that has been in place since 1971.

Most people come to see wildlife when they visit Trempealeau. In 2015, more than 60,000 people came to photograph and watch waterfowl like gadwall, American widgeon, and wood ducks. Beaver, deer, and various warblers are also popular wildlife to spot during a visit to the refuge. Late April to mid-May is the peak of spring warbler migration and is one of the best time to see how vital our habitats are to supporting a huge population of migratory birds.

Trempealeau is popular for more than just warblers. The refuge is home to one of the largest colonies of black terns in Wisconsin. Flocks can be seen from the observation deck in the summer zipping and darting above the water, seizing insects at the water surface. American bald eagles and tundra swans are common sights. In the spring breeding season, you can also see sandhill cranes dance, with six to 10 pairs nesting on the refuge most years. Black bear, fisher and bobcat are rare, but beautiful sightings for the lucky.

Back in the early 1930s, John Clark Salyer, II, known as the Father of the National Wildlife Refuge System, was the first to act on the idea of designating Trempealeau as a national wildlife refuge. In 1934, Salyer was recruited to oversee the management of all the refuges in the country and develop an Aldo Leopold-inspired conservation program based on the habitat needs of migratory birds.

A big part of Salyer’s large-scale management plan was to assess what lands needed protection and get those protections in place. Within six weeks of his journey, Salyer had driven more than 18,000 miles and drafted plans for more than 600,000 acres of new refuge lands, including the lands that would become Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge just two years later.

Conservation work can often start out small and can advance with fits and starts. The original refuge started out as a 700-acre plot of upland fallow pasture with an office and maintenance shop complex, along with temporary a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. The struggle to survive during the Great Depression was something every American felt. Unemployment, despair, and worry were rampant, but it was also a time of progress and preservation. For many men, referred to back then as the CCC Boys, the Civilian Conservation Corps provided work during a time of extreme economic turmoil for our nation. The Corps also helped shape public lands across the country, including national wildlife refuges. You can still see evidence of their roads, bridges and trails when you visit today.

CCC Boys from Camp Perrot worked on the refuge from 1935 to 1942, building roads, bridges and buildings. They also fought forest fires and battled against the erosion that followed. Corps members also mapped refuge lands and helped survey wildlife.  Their work helped feed their families and laid the foundation for many of our public lands today.


For more than 40 years, the refuge remained small despite several attempts to purchase more than 5,000 acres of the surrounding Delta Fish and Fur Farm, Incorporation. In 1975, things turned around when Dairyland Power Cooperative acquired the entire Delta Fish and Fur Farm. Dairyland wanted to construct a rail loop for a coal off-loading facility near their power generating plant at Alma, Wisconsin. The land they would need for constructing the loop was part of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. As part of a land exchange, Dairyland divested about 120 acres of the "Delta" and sold an additional 4,778 acres to the Service in 1979. The refuge will continue balancing managing the land for wildlife, as well as for people.

This Sunday, we will mark Trempealeau’s 80th birthday with a special celebration. Come and take part!

Plan your visit and discover Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge for yourself: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/trempealeau/

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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