When the first European settlers came to the area in the mid to late 1800s there were great numbers of American White Pelicans on Chase Lake. However, by the turn of the century, those numbers were reduced dramatically. The nearby settlers made it a practice to go to Chase Lake on Sunday afternoons to see how many pelicans they could kill with their rifles.
Their numbers continued to decrease. In 1905 when a man by the name of H. H. McCumber came to the area there were only 500 pelicans. Seeing their numbers continue to decrease, H. H. McCumber petitioned the U.S. Biological Survey, predecessor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to designate the area a bird refuge. In August of that year it was established as North Dakota’s second NWR and the 15th in the United States. In 1908, there were only 50 pelicans remaining. H. H. McCumber was designated the first federal game warden for the new refuge until 1918. In 1918, before he left, McCumber states that there were 2,500 to 3,000 pelicans at the refuge.
Pelican counts in recent years have shown the population at Chase Lake to be the largest nesting colony in North America. The population fluctuates between 4,000 and 35,000. Nearly one-third of the continental population of American White pelicans nest at Chase Lake NWR. In 2001 Chase Lake NWR was designated as a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy.
Chase Lake NWR is also becoming recognized as an important nesting area for other water birds as well. Since the late 1990s, other colonial nesting birds have been arriving at Chase Lake to nest. In recent years, the Chase Lake islands likely comprised nests of over 40,000 breeding birds (2013 estimates are over 50,000) (pelicans, cormorants, gulls, herons and egrets), making this one of the most significant mixed-species waterbird colonies in the northern plains and certainly one of the most important colonies managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in this region. Cattle egrets, Snowy egrets, Great egrets, Double-Crested cormorants, Black-Crowned night-herons, Little blue herons, White-Face ibis, Glossy ibis, California gulls, and Ring-billed gulls all nest on the islands.
Chase Lake NWR contains 4,385 acres of which 4,155 acres were designated a Wilderness Area in 1975. Wilderness Areas are “…lands designated for preservation and protection in the natural condition…”. The refuge consists of 50% Water, 45% Native and Tame Grasses, and 5% Marsh and Brush.