About Us

The prehistoric lands that make up Necedah National Wildlife Refuge sat at the bottom of Glacial Lake Wisconsin more than 18,000 years ago. Flowing glacial rivers fed the vast lake depositing sand and silt in ribbons across the lake bottom. Fast-forward through time as the glacial runoff changed course drastically from a northwest flow that moved toward the Black River, changing to a southeast exodus and flood. Water cascaded through breached moraines and fractured, glacial ice dams helping form some of the cut sandstone gorges near Wisconsin Dells. Catastrophic draining of the lake’s water exposed sand deposits and the washed topography of the lake bottom. Those sand deposits and scours formed the mosaic of dry ridges and wetland braids that now create Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.

The shallow water table that remained gave rise to a vast complex of peat bogs and sedge meadows edged with tamarack and interlaced with upland forests, savannas and prairies along the remnant sand ridges. Elk and bison roamed through the refuge as prairie chickens and passenger pigeons made their homes here as well. Vast wildfires reset vegetation communities periodically across large expanses of what we now know as Wisconsin.

By the 1700s, human interactions increased with the land that we know now as Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Humans living on the landscape tried to mimicked nature with fire and water to gather food, raise plants for harvest while living a nomadic lifestyle alongside wildlife. As more people arrived in the 1800s and started to put down roots year round. They devised ways to try to control the water and use the resources around them. Logging operations started and row crops were planted to support settlements and domestic animals.

Nature’s pendulum continued to swing between dry and wet periods. Dried out peat burned relentlessly and cleared the way for more crops. As the drought subsided in the late 1800s the area became increasingly wet, with relentless water refilling the basin during what was known as the drainage dream. The refuge and the surrounding area was now also known as The Great Wisconsin Swamp. Nature’s pendulum swung back again as the dust bowl era began.

The Great Wisconsin Swamp was now the most indebted drainage district in the state. Resulting in forfeited farms, homesteads and lands by the early 1920s. Resettlement and relocations continued as the Civilian Conservation Corps started restoring the land to semi-natural conditions by creating dams in the former drainage ditches.

Restoring water back on an area that had been logged, burned, drained, farmed and then abandoned became the site for a new era. Remaining families in the area like the Rynearsons and the Hamerstroms, students of Aldo Leopold, envisioned a new dream for the Great Central Wisconsin Swamp. A vision where wildlife would be the primary residents.

At the same time, conservation dreams for the area were forming as President Franklin D. Roosevelt was working to restore wild spaces for game and migratory birds. The culmination of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Rynearsons, Hamerstroms, Leopold and President F.D.R. efforts became the Necedah Migratory Bird Refuge, now known as Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, on March 14, 1939. This federal designation was the catalyst for the landscape legacy of conserving resident wildlife, game and migratory birds through wildlife management, monitoring, research and adaptive conservation methods on 110,000 acres of federal lands.

Habitat management, water control and wildlife plantings dominated the work on the refuge after establishment. The Civilian Conservation Corps also helped establish the legacy of public use and enjoyment of the refuge with the building of the observation tower in Rynearson Pool 1. Fast-forward one more time to present day, where a team of managers, biologists, equipment operators, fire staff, law enforcement and visitor services specialists all continue to work with wildlife, their habitats and people to conserve and enjoy our natural resources.

Ecological Importance of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge

The refuge is recognized as an official Important Bird Area internationally by BirdLife International and the United States National Audubon Society. These areas provide essential habitat to one or more bird species of conservation concern that are threatened or endangered, which are vulnerable species that are not widely distributed or concentrated in one general habitat type, and species that are vulnerable because they congregate together for breeding, feeding or migration.

Suk Cerney Flowage is recognized as a Wisconsin Wetland Gem by the Wisconsin Wetlands Association for its ecological importance and high quality wetland diversity. The accompanying upland community types that surrounding wetlands like these also represent a fully functioning ecological system.

The refuge is home to more than 230 bird species, black bears, gray wolves, American badgers, Boghaunter dragonflies, Blanding’s turtles and many more common to endangered plants and animals. We work to promote the recovery of whooping cranes, Karner blue butterflies and Kirtland’s warblers and have been namedEndangered Species Recovery Champions for these efforts and for hosting the largest wetland complex in the state, as well as the largest population of Karner blue butterflies in the country.

The refuge, as a whole, and its trails are part of the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail. These sites and trails around Wisconsin showcase a commitment to environmental stewardship and offer areas for the public to observe the fascinating diversity nature holds and the wildlife that call Wisconsin home.

Our Mission

The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.

The mission of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge is to provide scientific and community leadership and support in the restoration, preservation and management of waterfowl and other migratory birds, including listed species and native biological diversity within south central Wisconsin. We also provide, to the extent possible, quality wildlife-dependent recreational and educational experiences that foster an understanding and appreciation of these resources, and work to expand the role humankind plays in stewardship.

Every national wildlife refuge national wildlife refuge
A national wildlife refuge is typically a contiguous area of land and water managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  for the conservation and, where appropriate, restoration of fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.

Learn more about national wildlife refuge
was created for a special purpose. Some were created to protect migratory birds, others to protect threatened or endangered species or unique habitats, while others fulfill another special purpose. All activities allowed on refuges must be evaluated to make sure each activity will not conflict with the reason the refuge was founded.

Established by Franklin D. Roosevelt by Executive Order 8065 on March 14, 1939 for the purpose of “a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife and for use as an inviolate sanctuary, or for any other purpose, for migratory birds.”

On the ground, our work and primary purposes are to:

  • Provide resting, nesting, feeding and wintering habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds
  • Protect endangered and threated species and their habitats
  • Provide for biodiversity through conservation and restoration
  • Provide public opportunities for outdoor and wildlife dependent recreation including hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, wildlife photography, environmental education and interpretation

Our History

March 14, 1939 - President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing approximately 110,000 acres of federal land be set aside as the Necedah Migratory Waterfowl Refuge in the Bureau of Biological Survey under the Department of Agriculture. Established as a refuge for breeding and migratory birds and other wildlife while being an inviolate sanctuary for migratory birds.

1939 - The Bureau of Biological Survey from the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Fisheries from the Department of Commerce were transferred to the Department of the Interior and became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

1940 - Necedah Migratory Waterfowl Refuge was renamed Necedah National Wildlife Refuge

May 28, 1941 - Necedah Wildlife Management Area was established, which designated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the custodial agent for the entire property, including parts of what is known today as the Central Wisconsin Conservation Area, parts of Meadow Valley State Wildlife Area, parts of Wood County Wildlife Area and parts of Sandhill State Wildlife Area, and scattered parcels in Jackson County. While they are part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, they are managed cooperatively with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources through a cooperative agreement.

1940s - Largest oak savanna restoration project in Wisconsin starts

1942 - Civilian Conservation Corps work on the refuge ended. Crew members worked in the area from 1933 to 1942, installing dike, dams and access to refuge impoundments. You can still see these structures at the refuge today in Goose, Sprague and Rynearson pools. The hardworking crew also worked to stabilize streams and repair gullies along the Little Yellow River.

1952 - Wild turkey releases supplemented ongoing Canada geese management with the intention to increase game species by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

1960s - Reintroduction of mallards began as wildlife biologists tried to use predator control, artificial nesting structures, grazing, haying, farming, timber harvest and herbicide applications. Prescribed fire also had its start as a habitat management tool in this decade. Studies were conducted to better understand the outcomes of these actions and prompted a shift in management.

1970s - That shift in habitat and wildlife management steered the work towards providing more natural nesting areas through prairie restoration, moist soil management, seed production, creation of smaller impoundments and active water level management.

1980s - The first gray wolf migrated back to the refuge and was observed 50 years after the last report. Refuge work moved past a waterfowl focus and started working with partners to increase populations of rare and declining bird species. Eastern bluebird work included partners and volunteers installing 169 nesting boxes and a monitoring program for the next 11 years. Bald eagles and osprey platforms were installed. In 1985, staff and the International Crane Foundation a group of captive reared sandhill cranes were raised and released on the refuge. Partnering with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in 1986, the refuge also hosted efforts to release trumpeter swan cygnets. Banding and nest monitoring of the swans continued into the turn of 2000s.

1990s - Wetland, savanna and prairie restoration work continues. The increase in diverse habitat and restoring native vegetation increased the chances for declining species. Endangered species work continued as well. The Karner blue butterfly was listed as an endangered species in 1992, due to the dramatic decline in its population due to habitat loss. Studies found that habitat restoration on the refuge provided existing suitable habitat with existing populations of Karners. The first bald eagle fledgling was reported in 1996, 25 years after the last reported eaglet on the refuge. Massassauga rattle snakes, another species is dangerous decline, became the focus of a study in 1994 to understand their native habitat and range - 17 native snakes were originally found and monitored. The refuge, Milwaukee Zoo and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conducted a habitat use study with 31 radio tagged massassaugas in 1999 and 2000. All 31 were recovered by the end of the study and none have been recorded on the refuge since.

2000s - Working with the International Crane Foundation and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources again, existing partnerships were expanded upon and captive reared whooping cranes sparked the creation of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. Young cranes were reared on the refuge to create an experimental flock. A flock that was taught how to migrate as an insurance policy for the western migratory flock. Birds with one geographical area or migration route are susceptible to catastrophic losses. Having a second migrating flock, in historic ranges, adds a buffer to population recovery. Now whooping cranes are on Wisconsin’s landscape and the Eastern half of the United States flying wild and free. Necedah National Wildlife Refuge also holds the largest population of Karner blue butterflies in the world. Both species and their populations are now stronger thanks to habitat restoration, management, and partnerships at the refuge.

2011 - Quality habitat attracts more than a diversity of wildlife species. Quality wildlife conservation attracts humans too. In 2011, the refuge opened a hands-on, minds-on visitor center with education space and staff offices to bring both wildlife and people together on the refuge landscape.