Sugar Island


“This significant addition to the refuge permanently protects the island for fish and wildlife populations, and helps protect our internationally  renowned ‘natural capital’ that enriches our quality of life and is a gift to future generations.”


- Dr. John Hartig, Refuge Manager 

Sugar Island is approximately 30 acres located near the southeast end of Grosse Ile at the mouth of the Detroit River as it enters Lake Erie. The island is 115 meters west of the Livingstone Channel-Sugar Island cross dike and 300 meters from the closest Grosse Ile shoreline. 

In late April 2012, the island was purchased by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service with Great Lakes Restoration Initia­tive funding for inclusion in the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Due to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service policy, the new refuge unit will be closed to public use until the development of a Visitor Services Plan is complete.  At this time, the island is open to hunters in season - learn more about the Hunt Program at Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.  Research and environmental education will be allowed on the island under special-use permits. For more information about how to obtain a special use permit, please contact the Refuge Visitor Services Manager


History of the Island


In the 1880s, Sugar Island and nearby Hickory Island were popular destinations where small pleasure boats put in for picnics and camping. On Sugar Island, there were a dance pavilion and a baseball diamond.

Beginning in 1898, the amenities on the island were greatly expanded. The dock was enlarged and a restaurant was built. The improved dance pavilion was a covered, open-air space with a hardwood floor. A number of large excursion boats, including the Riverside, the Wyandotte, the Greyhound and the Tashmoo, made regular runs to the island.

By the 1920s, a large roller coaster, a merry-go-round, a bathing beach and rowboat rentals established Sugar Island as a major weekend destination. The years that followed were the golden era of the park.

By the 1940s, the park on Sugar Island fell into disrepair and was overshadowed by nearby Boblo Amusement Park. Various plans to revitalize the island came and went. A group of African-Americans eyed it as a possible resort, as did developers in Toledo. Still another plan proposed extensive landfill and homebuilding. None of these came to fruition.

In 1954, the dance pavilion burned to the ground and a visible connection to an illustrious past was lost. Until recently, as they did 130 years ago, small watercraft would beach or drop anchor to picnic and explore. The private, wooded island was also used for hunting.

Today, Sugar Island is a unit of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - the premier Federal agency dedicated to the conservation, protection and enhancement of the nation's fish, wildlife, and plants, and their habitats. The island is currently closed to public visitation with the exception of hunting in season. See a copy of the Detroit River IWR Hunt Map and Regulations brochure. 

(Information courtesy of Wallace Hayden, Bacon Memorial District Library, Wyandotte, Michigan) 


Sugar Island Flora & Fauna


The Detroit River is a known migration corridor for many birds and insects, thus Sugar Island is a stopover site during migration for a wide range of species.  Forests, like that on Sugar Island, are especially important for dozens of species of neotropical migrant passerines. Heavy use of the island in spring and fall by sparrows and kinglets (March/April/October) and warblers, vireos, orioles, and tanagers (May/August/September) has been frequently observed. Hundreds of thousands of blue jays annually travel over this area around western Lake Erie. With the occurrence of a concentrated number of migrant songbirds, the well-documented and monitored migration of raptors would utilize this concentration of migrant songbirds as prey. During morning and evening hours when raptors are not migrating, individuals are using these habitats to hunt. The following species use forested habitats like Sugar Island: sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, northern goshawk, broad-winged hawk, and red-shouldered hawk. The sand beaches are used for hunting by merlin, red-tailed, bald eagle, and northern harrier. 

Fish in the shallow waters around Sugar Island are diverse, including largemouth, smallmouth, and white bass, bowfin, bullhead, gar, pike, rock bass, blue gill, pumpkinseed, emerald shiner, and yellow perch. Of note is the presence of the channel darter, a Michigan endangered species.

Island soils generally consist of poorly drained stiff clay and silt and generally level topography with some lower elevational areas where water is perched for longer duration. The current forest canopy is made up of a multitude of tree species, including shagbark hickory, red oak, American elm, northern hackberry, black walnut, black cherry, hawthorn, mulberry, and some patches of young sugar maple and sparse ironwood. Especially poorly drained sites consist of silver maple, box elder, American elm, and northern catalpa (particularly along the shoreline). The understory is comprised of naturalized cool season grasses and Virginia wild rye in open light or mottled light gaps, and the following grasses in poorly drained sites: Muskingum sedge, fowl manna grass, white grass, and other unidentified Carex species. Of note is the presence of a number of mature red oak and shagbark hickories which were spared during clearing and grazing over the last couple of centuries.

The beaches consist of willows (Salix sp.), silverweed (Pontentilla anserina; Figure 3), common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), horsetails (Equisetum sp.), with threesquare (Schoenoplectus pungens), and rufous bulrush (Scirpus pendulus) common along the shoreline. The southeastern shore is adjacent to rapids between the island and the Cross Cut, where there is a significant deposition of boulders.


Public Use on the Island


After Sugar Island was purchased by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge in April 2012 for inclusion in the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, Refuge authorities closed the property to public use with the exception of limited hunting opportunities.  A public forum was held in June to announce the Service's plans to incorporate the important stopover habitat into the overall vision for the nation's only international wildlife refuge.  Public comments were again solicited at a workshop in September to discuss potential "win-win" solutions for public usage of the island and the resulting comments and recommendations were incorporated into an Environmental Assessment of the island, completed in late December.  

On February 7, 2013 the Draft Environmental Assessment for Additional Public Use of the Sugar Island Unit of Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge will be open for public comment.  The document outlines four potential alternatives for public use on the unit.  Comments will be accepted through March 8, 2013.  

Public comments are currently being compiled and added to the Draft EA. An electronic copy of the final document will be available HERE once complete. 

A Compatibility Determination (CD) has recently been developed by Refuge staff to ensure that all public use of the island being proposed remains compatible with the mission and purpose of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. The comment period for this document is now over. A copy of the final CD will be available soon. 

Download a copy of the Sugar Island Compatibility Determination - final document coming soon  

A copy of the Refuge's press release announcing the development of the Sugar Island Draft CD is available for viewing. 

Please contact the Assistant Refuge Manager for additional information regarding Sugar Island. 


Return to Top