National Wildlife Refuge System

77 Years After the Dust Bowl, National Wildlife Refuges Still Reclaiming Land

More than 63 refuges were established to help reverse the effects of the Dust Bowl.
Credit: NOAA
Blue Winged Teal Brood
A blue winged teal watches her brood at J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, ND.
Credit: J/K Hollingsworth

This year marks the 77th anniversary of “Black Sunday” – April 10, 1935, when the worst dust storms of the Dust Bowl era stripped the topsoil off the Central Plains, darkening skies as far east as Chicago and Washington, DC, and uprooting hundreds of thousands of Americans.

“The Dust Bowl,” a new documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns, has been called a morality tale about our relationship to the land.  It premieres November 18 and 19, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET on PBS, including interviews with 26 survivors as well as original photographs and movie footage.

The same 1935 drought that drove “Okies” off their farms also dried up the great prairie potholes – the primary breeding and feeding areas for waterfowl. This led to one of the nation’s most drastic declines in duck numbers. Ultimately, this led to a massive mobilization of federal conservation resources from the top down.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt named J.N. “Ding” Darling as chief of the Biological Survey (the predecessor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) in 1934. Darling devoted himself to reversing the effects of the Dust Bowl, in part by establishing national wildlife refuges along the nation’s four major flyways. Almost 2.5 million young men with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked to restore natural wetlands and habitats.

During the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era, more than 63 national wildlife refuges were established, dedicated to wildlife habitat development and the reversal of environmental degradation.  Together, these refuges play an important role in reclaiming ravaged lands by filling drainage ditches, stabilizing the soil with deep-rooted plants, improving water quality, reducing floods and protecting habitat for migratory birds.  The Dust Bowl became a catalyst for visionary conservation programs.

The Dust Bowl was the era’s worst man-made environmental crisis. Today, as climate change presents another man-made environmental crisis, wildlife refuges established in the 1930s offer lessons. Here are a few Dust Bowl era refuges that are still improving Plains ecology:

Audubon National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota The refuge encompasses more than 14,000 acres of native prairie, grasslands and wetlands managed to provide habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. Water management ensures adequate water in drought years. Controlled burns increase soil nutrients and stimulate plant growth.

Devils Lake Wetland Management District, North Dakota:
Here, across more than 213,000 acres of the Prairie Pothole region, refuge biologists seed native grasses and restore wetlands, improving wildlife habitat while reducing erosion, boosting water quality, alleviating flooding, recharging groundwater and offering recreational opportunities. 

Fergus Falls Wetland Management District, Minnesota:
This five-county region, 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 restoring the landscape’s ability to provide wildlife habitat and other natural resource benefits.  In 2008 and 2009 Fergus Falls restored 635 acres of grassland on 23 separate sites. 

J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota:
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. 

Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota: This 12,100-acre refuge in North Dakota restored former cropland into grasslands; the deep roots of the grasses penetrate and hold the valuable Prairie Pothole region soils. Refuge managers and biologists have also restored and managed wetlands to reverse the effects of drought and improve habitat for waterfowl, colonial nesting birds and wading birds.



Last updated: November 16, 2012