National Wildlife Refuge System
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Storms of dirt and dust engulf Texas homes during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s
Storms of dirt and dust engulf Texas homes during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. One result: More than 63 national wildlife refuges were established in the Central Plains to try to reverse environmental degradation.
Credit: NOAA Photo Library

Dust Bowl Legacy

April 14, 2010 will mark the 75th anniversary of "Black Sunday" — the day in 1935 when the worst dust storms of the Dust Bowl era swept across the Central Plains, darkening skies as far east as Chicago and Washington, DC. This largely man–made disaster, resulting from unsound farming practices aggravated by drought, displaced hundreds of thousands of Americans.

But there was one good outcome: the establishment of more then 63 National Wildlife Refuges dedicated to wildlife habitat development and the reversal of environmental degradation. Together, these refuges played an important role in reclaiming ravaged lands by plugging drainage ditches, stabilizing the soil with deep-rooted plants, improving water quality, reducing floods and protecting habitat for migratory birds.

Today, as climate change raises the prospect of a new environmental crisis, these refuges have lessons to offer. Here are a few Dust Bowl era refuges that are still improving Plains ecology:

Devils Lake Wetland Management District, ND: Refuge biologists are planting native grasses and restoring wetlands, improving wildlife habitat while reducing erosion, boosting water quality, alleviating flooding, recharging ground water and enhancing wildlife recreation. Easements currently protect 213,000 acres of the Prairie Pothole region. For more information: Roger Hollevoet, 701-662-8611, or visit

Fergus Falls Wetland Management District, MN: This five-county region of western Minnesota, prized by 19th-century settlers for its abundant wildlife, was devastated by the drought of the 1930s. Working with conservation partners, the Fergus Falls Wetland Management District is slowly restoring the landscape's ability to provide wildlife habitat and many other natural resource benefits. In FY 2008, Fergus Falls harvested more than 5,000 pounds of native grass seed for grassland restoration. For more information:  Kevin Brennan, 218-739-2291, or visit

J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, ND: This 58,700-acre refuge, named for the biologist who bought up many acres of parched land for the National Wildlife Refuge System in the 1930s, has developed into one of the most important duck production areas in the country. For more information: Kelly Hogan, 701-768-2548, or visit

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