About the Refuge

Entrance road into Waubay NWR in summer. Photo by L. Hubers/USFWS

Waubay National Wildlife Refuge is located in the prairie pothole region, the largest duck production area in the continental United States.  Artist George Catlin described this area as a "blue and boundless ocean of prairie."

Potholes and More

Waubay National Wildlife Refuge, located in northeastern South Dakota, was established in 1935 as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.  It is administered by the Department of the Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At the time Waubay was established, the center of the country was in the midst of a devastating drought that affected not just people and crops, but decimated waterfowl populations.  Today, the National Wildlife Refuge system has grown to more than 566 Refuges located in all fifty states.  It is the largest system of lands in the world dedicated to preserving fish, wildlife, and their habitats.

The Refuge includes 4,650 acres of lakes, marshes, grasslands, and woodlands which support diverse and abundant wildlife. "Waubay" is an English corruption of the Lakota word "wa-ma" or "wa-be" meaning where wildfowl build their nests. There couldn't be a better name for this National Wildlife Refuge, where 245 species of birds have been observed. Both eastern and western bird species of the United States can be found here.  Waubay is also at the southern end of the breeding range of red-necked grebes and LeConte's sparrows and at the northern edge of red-bellied woodpeckers, northern cardinals and yellow-billed cuckoos.

Water levels in prairie lakes, like Waubay Lake, are subject to extreme fluctuations. In the 1930's, Waubay Lake was dry. Heavy precipitation between 1993 and 1997 caused the lake level to rise 15 feet, flooding 100 year old trees. 

When water levels change, wildlife using the refuge changes. Low water periods draw thousands of diving ducks attracted to sago pondweed beds. On the other hand, flooded timber makes ideal habitat for nesting wood ducks. More than 100 species of birds nest on the Refuge; their relative abundance adjusting with changes in habitat.