National Wildlife Refuge System

Mille Lacs Refuge, MN: Tiny Jewels

Spirit Island, which hosts a large population of cormorants, is culturally significant to the Ojibwe.
Credit: USFWS
Mille Lacs Refuge staff work with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe to improve nesting habitat for common terns.
Credit: USFWS

May 14, 2015 - Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, MN - pronounced mi-LAX - is the smallest refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System at only .57 acres.  The refuge includes Hennepin and Spirit Islands in Mille Lacs Lake. Established by President Woodrow Wilson as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds, the refuge celebrates its 100th birthday this month.


Both islands are covered with jumbled rock, boulders and gravel. Mystical clouds seem to appear over Spirit Island, almost like a ghostly apparition in the distance, but attributed to the bird guano that gives the islands a white cover. The island is culturally significant for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, which helps protect both islands and their birds.


“All wildlife is sacred and as caretakers of these animals, we are also charged with being the best stewards of these species,” says Kelly Applegate, biologist for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. “When we recognize a species is in trouble we work to help them.”


Charlie Wooley, deputy director of the Midwest Region, enjoys fishing near Mille Lacs Refuge in summer or winter.
Credit: Contributed by Charlie Wooley

The species in trouble right now is the (not so) common tern. Hennepin Island has one of only five colonies in Minnesota. The refuge, in partnership with the Mille Lacs Band, is trying several strategies to improve nesting conditions. “We construct a string grid the length of the nesting area,” explains refuge manager Walt Ford, “to deter ring-billed gulls from taking over the nesting area. The string makes the gulls nervous because they are much less agile flyers than the terns.”


Ford says the Mille Lacs Band recently received a grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to modify old pontoons as artificial nesting platforms and anchor them in a secluded bay on the Mille Lacs reservation adjacent to the refuge.  Applegate says decoys and recordings will be used to lure the terns to the platforms when they are completed in 2016.


Hennepin Island is one of two islands that make up the nation's smallest national wildlife refuge, Mille Lacs Refuge in Minnesota.
Credit: USFWS

Refuge staff, or staff from the Mille Lacs Band, make weekly visits to count tern nests, eggs and chicks on Hennepin Island, and less frequently to Spirit Island which has approximately 500 nesting pairs of double-crested cormorants. Both islands remain closed to the public, with people asked to stay at least 200 feet from the shore to minimize disturbance.  That leaves plenty of room for avid anglers like Charlie Wooley, deputy director of the Midwest Region. “It’s good fishing because the rocks provide cover for small fish and they attract trophy fish like muskies, walleye and bass.”


Mille Lacs Lake is also a prime destination for ice fishing.  “People drive their cars on the lake and set up thousands of ice shanties,” says Wooley. Every five or six years, refuge staff and the Mille Lacs Band partner to haul pea gravel across the ice in dump trucks. It’s cheaper than hauling by boat but is still a dangerous and very labor intensive task as all the gravel is spread on the island by hand to help restore habitat. The terns lay speckled eggs which are well-camouflaged among pea gravel.


Milles Lacs National Wildlife Refuge is a State Important Bird Area in Minnesota and has been designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society as well.



Last updated: May 14, 2015