Newsroom Midwest Region

Celebrating the future and appreciating the past

Tallgrass prairie and wetland gem turns 80

September 19, 2018

Trumpeter swans preening. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS.
Trumpeter swans preening. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS.

We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are celebrating Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge, which was established 80 years ago. Today, the refuge encompasses 3,334 acres of both marsh and upland habitat and is home to hundreds of species of plants and animals. Take a moment to learn about this migratory waterfowl refuge located in the southern end of the Prairie Pothole Region and plan a trip to experience it first-hand.

The name Union Slough stands for the connection or union of the east fork of the Des Moines River and the Blue Earth River. Before European settlement, the area was so level that the wind determined which way the slough flowed. Native Americans called this area Mini Akapan Kaduza, meaning “water which runs both ways.”

National wildlife refuges have been outdoor classrooms and living laboratories since the first refuge was established in 1903. Wildlife biologists, forest ecologists and ornithologists have partnered with federal land managers and biologists to better understand and protect America’s natural resources. Union Slough has been a part of this tradition since it was established.

Trumpeter swans are a great example of this living laboratory and have been making an incredible recovery across Canada and the United States since restoration efforts began in the 1930s. Today more than 46,000 are estimated to live across North America and some call the refuge home. While biologists know a great deal about them, there’s so much left to learn about their preferences for breeding sites, migratory movements and overwintering. Refuge biologists are working together with colleagues from Iowa State University and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to find out. Recently, thanks to the generous support of the Friends of Union Slough, the research team was able to double their efforts in swan research. In addition to a Friends-funded GPS collar that the team placed on a swan captured at the refuge, Iowa State University funding covered the cost a second collar for a young swan that the team captured on Maynard Reece Waterfowl Production Area. Data collected will be analyzed by Iowa State University and provided to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Today, people visit the refuge to watch and photograph trumpeter swans, blue-winged teal and other waterfowl from the refuge observation platform located near the office. Another favorite is the four-mile auto tour route. Open in late summer and for special events, the route traverses rolling tallgrass prairie and winds along the shoreline of Union Slough providing outstanding views of shorebirds, grassland birds and waterfowl. You’ll likely see bobolinks, lesser yellowlegs, bald eagles and great blue herons along the drive. There are other fun ways to explore Union Slough year-round. Take in a hike or snowshoe at Buffalo Creek Bottoms, in the southern part of the refuge.

People come from all areas of the U.S. to enjoy hunting opportunities at Union Slough. Hunting is permitted on Schwob Marsh and Buffalo Creek Bottoms in accordance with all federal, state and refuge-specific regulations. The 2,700 acre core area of the refuge is open to ring-necked pheasant and gray partridge hunting during the last five days of the state established pheasant hunting season.

Learn more about Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge and plan your visit today!

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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