Wildlife & Habitat


Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge consists of nearly 6,000 acres of unique wildlife habitat owned by the refuge or cooperatively managed with partners. The Refuge's islands, coastal wetlands, marshes, shoals, and waterfront lands provide a place for wildlife in the midst of urban development.

  • Eastern Fox Snake

    An Eastern Fox Snake

    A type of North American rat snake, the Eastern fox snake is a native resident of the emergent wetlands along Lake Erie and Lake Huron. This species prefers large, open wetland areas with herbaceous vegetation such as cattails for cover. The Eastern fox snake is found in Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario and is listed as a Threatened Species by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources — primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Reptiles and amphibians are indicators of environmental quality, and can provide critical data to help monitor subtle changes in the environment that may compromise ecosystem health. The Eastern fox snake has been given special management considerations within refuge boundaries.

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  • Canvasback

    Canvasback Ducks swimming

    The coastal marshes of western Lake Erie and the lower Detroit River provide important feeding and nesting opportunities for waterfowl. On average more than 300,000 diving ducks stop each year during fall migration to rest and feed on beds of wild celery in the lower Detroit River. This lower river has been designated a globally significant site for congregating waterfowl. 

    Historically, diving duck species such as Canvasbacks and Lesser Scaup were drawn to this area because of the extensive beds of aquatic vegetation. However, over the last century, pollution caused by industrial plants and municipal sewage degraded the lower Detroit River ecosystem. This caused a great decline of these preferred foods, and numbers of diving ducks visiting the area dropped due to this ecological shift. Today, as a result of focused conservation and water quality efforts, an estimated 3 million waterfowl migrate annually through the Great Lakes and this significant river ecosystem.

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  • Lake Sturgeon

    Man holding a lake sturgeon

    The lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) is a North American temperate freshwater fish. Once abundant in the Great Lakes, lake sturgeon suffered from overharvesting, pollution, and a loss of migratory waterways. These impacts caused the species to reach threatened status in 19 of the 20 states in its range.

    Fisheries biologists at the Alpena Fish & Wildlife Conservation Office and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge collaborate with partners to re-establish these fish in their historic range. Some success was achieved in 2001 when sturgeon reproduction was documented in U.S. waters of the Detroit River for the first time in 30 years. Successful reproduction of the fish in Canadian waters of the river has been documented since 2009. Although still rarely seen by most recreational anglers, lake sturgeon are an important indicator of a healthy watershed, and mark the success of restoration efforts in the Detroit River.

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  • Great Lakes Marsh

    USFWS Fix Marsh photo credit Tom Kachelmeyer

    Considered a globally imperiled and state vulnerable habitat type, Great Lakes marsh occurs along the shoreline of the Great Lakes and major connecting rivers. Vegetation in these habitats is largely dependent on water level fluctuation, but in general have three distinct zones: wet meadow, emergent marsh, and submergent marsh.

    Large, contiguous pockets of emergent wetland habitat are rare within the lower Great Lakes landscape. As a result, plant and animal species associated with these ecosystems have steadily declined in most areas of the region. 

    Species such as the Marsh Wren, American and Least Bittern, Forster’s Tern, Common Gallinule, Black Tern, and other species are dependent on these wetland habitats. Through careful management and stewardship, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge provides large swaths of cattail habitat intermixed with patches of arrowhead, bulrushes, and pickerelweed on many of the refuge’s units.  These are all important plants used by birds for cover and nest construction. 

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  • Lakeplain Wet Prairie


    Lakeplain wet prairie habitat is one of the most diverse ecosystems present within the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. This habitat type is globally imperiled, is state-listed as critically imperiled, and can only be found in the southern Great Lakes region. Located in a transition zone between wetlands and uplands, this habitat type is typically dominated by blue-joint grass and sedges, and located next to emergent freshwater marshes.  Lakeplain wet prairies resist most tree growth because of high seasonal water level fluctuations and intermittent flooding.

    Lakeplain wet prairies provide habitat for many important native pollinators. The wildflowers, grasses, and sedges that thrive here diversify the food and shelter available to wildlife in this unique landscape.

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  • Wet-mesic Flatwoods

    Warbling Vireo photo credit Lyn El-Zein

    Wet-mesic flatwoods is an uncommon forest type, only occurring on poorly drained glacial soils in the Maumee lakeplain in southeast Michigan. This habitat type is a priority resource of concern for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge because of its globally vulnerable and state imperiled status. 

    Wet-mesic flatwoods habitat is characterized by a highly diverse array of tree canopy species including oaks, maples, and ash tree species. Like other wet-mesic forest habitats, wet-mesic flatwoods provide important stopover habitat for migratory songbirds.

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