About the Refuge

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A sea of grass in a sea of grass, Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) was established in 1931 under Executive Order 5597 to serve as "a refuge and breeding ground for birds and wild animals,” particularly migratory birds. Crescent Lake NWR is located in western Nebraska, on the eastern edge of the panhandle about 28 miles north of Oshkosh, in Garden County. The Refuge is comprised of 45,849 acres, of which 24,502 acres are proposed wilderness.

The Refuge lies on the southwestern edge of the Nebraska Sandhills, the largest sand dune in the Western Hemisphere. The Sandhills are characterized by rolling, vegetated hills and interdunal valleys. These habitats on the Refuge are interspersed with 21 wetland complexes—shallow lakes, marshes, seasonal wetlands, wet meadows, and a small stream. Wildlife diversity, except large ungulates and their predators, is relatively unchanged since early settlement.


The Sandhills became cattle ranching country during the 1870's and 1880's when the Bison gave way to the Hereford, and the soft footfall of the Comanche pony was replaced by the foot beats of the cowboy's work horse. The land was considered open range, the size of one's ranch limited only by one's ability to take and hold it.

Encouraged by the Homestead Act and the Timber Culture Act, settlers began flocking to the region, claiming most of the land by 1890. New railroads and the Kinkaid Act of 1904 brought a final rush of landseekeers, ending the days of free range and completing settlement of the State.

These homesteaders attempted to farm their land; however, because the soil was almost pure sand, such ventures proved unsuccessful. Most of the small landowners sold out to the cattle ranchers or allowed their land to go to the county for unpaid taxes.The region reverted to large livestock spreads and so it remains today. 


Photo of cattle herd - Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 

For untold centuries, the numerous vegetation-chocked lakes of the Sandhills have provided abundant food and cover for migrating and nesting waterfowl. The sandy soils readily absorb and hold rainfall. Because of this underground storage, the larger lakes contain some water even during drought.

Aerial photo of wetland - Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 

In the late 1920s, when the continuing decline of waterfowl became a national concern, steps were taken to establish a refuge in the Sandhills. An initial land purchase was completed in 1931, and Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge became a reality. Subsequent small purchases and land exchanges increased the Refuge to its present size. Because the wetlands are randomly scattered, it was necessary to purchase a large tract of prairie grassland to provide the needed lakes and ponds.