About the Refuge

Aerial view of the Souris  River along the J. Clark Salyer NWR scenic trail

J. Clark Salyer NWR is the largest and most diverse of North Dakota's national wildlife refuges and one of the premier refuges in the United States.


J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is located along the Souris River in north-central North Dakota. This 58,700 acre Refuge extends south from the Canadian border for approximately 45 miles and is the largest refuge in North Dakota.  The diverse habitat types found on the Refuge - mixed grass prairie, river valley, marshes, sandhills, and woodlands - support an abundant variety of wildlife. 

The primary purpose of the Refuge is to provide habitat for waterfowl, migratory birds, and other wildlife.  J. Clark Salyer NWR is one of over 560 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System - a network of lands set aside and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specifically for wildlife.  

The Refuge lies in the lakebed of glacial Lake Souris.  Retreating glaciers created the rolling hills and temporary wetlands of today's landscape.  Most of the Refuge is composed of river valley wetland habitat bordered by a narrow strip of upland vegetation.  The southern portion of the Refuge includes wooded river bottoms, floodplain meadows, and native prairie sandhills.  The sandhills are remnants of wind-and-wave borne deposits on the ancient lakeshore.

Established in 1935, the refuge was originally called Lower Souris Refuge.  In 1967, the Refuge was re-named after John Clark Salyer II, the former Chief of the Division of Wildlife Refuges for the Bureau of Biological Survey from 1934 to 1961. Salyer has become known as the "Father of the National Wildlife Refuge System." Under his direction, the system rose in acreage from 1.5 million acres in the mid-1930's to nearly 29 million acres upon his retirement. 


Interesting Facts about J. Clark Salyer NWR  

  • The name "Souris" is French for "mouse".  Before 1800, French explorers found the local Indian tribes calling the stream "the mouse river" because of the great number of mice found in the meadows on the banks of the river.
  • There are five main dikes with water control structures on the Refuge, impounding over 23,000 acres of wetlands. Additionally, there are about 36,000 acres of upland which includes wooded river bottoms, native prairie grasslands, floodplain meadows, and seeded native or tame grasses.
  • Over 270 bird species have been found on the Refuge and over 160 species nest here. The diversity of habitats and its location in the transition zone between the eastern and western United States makes the Refuge one of the best bird watching areas in North Dakota, if not the entire country. Bird watchers from all over the US and other countries come to take advantage of the bird watching opportunities found here.
  • One of the first attempts to reestablish the Giant Canada geese as nesting birds in North Dakota began at the Refuge in 1937. Now, these birds are found in every county of the State.
  • Two special designations were received in 2001. The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network designated the Refuge as a regional site, critically important for shorebirds, and the American Bird Conservancy named the Refuge one of the first 100 “Globally Important Bird Areas.” These designations serve to point out the importance this Refuge has to migratory birds. 
  • The North Dakota Natural Heritage Inventory lists the Refuge as one of only two intact ecological landscapes remaining in North Dakota.
  • J. Clark Salyer NWR is one of only ten refuges, from a Refuge System of over 560 refuges, that were featured in a Refuge System centennial exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History during 2003-2004.