Refuge History

Grebes near smartweed at Lake Lowell

Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge is one of the oldest refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System.


Early History

Before settlement, the area that was to become Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge was a low-lying area with many springs. In winter, herds of deer and elk came from the mountains to eat the abundant grasses. Early settlers observing these herds dubbed the area Deer Flat.

The Oregon Trail passed to the north of the refuge area, along the Boise River, and south, along the Snake River. Settlement radiated out of the Boise area once the flow of traffic slowed on the Oregon Trail and settlement in Southwest Idaho began in earnest. Needing water to irrigate crops, settlers initially restricted their settlements to the areas close to rivers. The local desert had fertile soil and only lacked water to make it productive for agriculture. One of the homesteads that was eventually covered by the waters of Lake Lowell is shown here.

Before the Reservoir CCHS

The obvious solution was to establish irrigation reservoirs. In response to this problem across the arid west, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Bureau of Reclamation in 1902. Land owners near Deer Flat, led by a Mr. J.H. Lowell, lobbied this new agency for a local reservoir that would allow them to develop their land. The lobbying efforts were successful, and in 1906, the Bureau of Reclamation began work on Deer Flat Reservoir, which would later be renamed Lake Lowell in honor of the man who got it all started.

Click next below to find out about development of the reservoir.

Creating Lake Lowell

Between 1906 and 1909, crews of men built two large and two small earthen embankments, or dams, to contain the reservoir. Some members of these crews were "common drunks collected by the Nampa police force," but the dams got built.

A small-gauge train was used to haul, dump, and compact material at the Upper Dam. Horse teams were used at the Lower Dam. Workers also constructed a diversion dam on the Boise River and enlarged the New York Canal (named for the origin of its investors), which brings water from the Boise River to the reservoir.

The reservoir was completed in 1909 at a cost of $2,500,000. Unfortunately, local landowners greeted it with outrage rather than cheers. Most of the water first used to fill the reservoir either evaporated or leaked out! Fortunately, the reservoir soon began holding water. Lake Lowell is now one of the largest off-stream reservoirs in the American west, with the capacity to irrigate over 200,000 acres of land.

Establishment of the Refuge

With the reservoir completed, President Theodore Roosevelt realized that a nearly 9,000-acre lake in an arid region would be an oasis for wildlife, so he created Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge in 1909. Roosevelt had begun the National Wildlife Refuge System when he established the first refuge at Pelican Island in Florida in 1903.