National Wildlife Refuge System

Big Lake Refuge, Arkansas, Celebrates 100 Years

About 2,500 wood ducks hatch each year at Big Lake Refuge, AR.
Credit: Robin Koch/USfwS

August 3, 2015 - Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge, AR will celebrate a rich history this month, as it enters its 100th year as a sanctuary for eagles, ospreys, beavers, bobcats and 300,000 migratory waterfowl each year.

Once a portion of the Mississippi River, Big Lake was formed after a series of earthquakes altered the river’s drainage patterns in 1812, creating about 2,600 acres of open water. Local wildlife immediately flocked to the new lake, providing food for the local population. With the advent of railroads following the Civil War, a new influx of hunters and timber companies began to exploit the area, much to the dismay of locals who depended on wildlife in the Big Lake area to survive.

From the 1870s until the refuge’s establishment in 1915 by an executive order of President Woodrow Wilson, there were both legal and physical confrontations between locals and newcomers, sometimes called the “Big Lake Wars.” Rice farming became more and more prevalent, and before long, about 2,000 acres of land in the area was being farmed, adversely affecting local wildlife. New levees and irrigation ditches caused a major drainage of Big Lake, which compromised the quality of the water for both people and waterfowl.

With help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lake has revived and today visitors can find up to 227 species of birds in addition to mammals, fish and reptiles on the 11,038-acre refuge.  There are five walking trails, two public boat launches and year-round fishing.  

Big Lake Wilderness has a cypress forest that hosts bald eagles.
Credit: Jeremy Bennett/USFWS
The 12-Story Oak Tree
A major attraction of Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge is the largest overcup oak tree in Arkansas, conveniently located at the end of one of the trails. Measuring in at 112 feet tall and just over 18 feet in circumference, the tree towers above others in the refuge’s bottomland hardwood forest. The refuge also contains the federally-designated Big Lake Wilderness, a 2,144-acre cypress forest that hosts nesting bald eagles.  Bald eagle sightings have been on the rise since 1989. Additionally, about 5,000 acres of the refuge is designated as a National Natural Landmark.

“Our habitat management programs are designed to provide critical food supplies and cover for wintering waterfowl” said Glenn French, engineering equipment operator at the refuge.  Visitors can also spot otters, raccoons, wild turkeys and even the occasional armadillo rustling through underbrush or wading through the lake, which is only about three feet deep.

About 50,000 visitors each year enjoy Big Lake’s highly-varied wildlife, picturesque landscape and storied history, as well as a visitor center completed in 2012.


Last updated: August 3, 2015