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Crane Meadows
National Wildlife Refuge

Sandhill crane standing with wings spread
19502 Iris Road
Little Falls, MN   56345
E-mail: cranemeadows@fws.gov
Phone Number: 320-632-1575
Visit the Refuge's Web Site:
Crane Meadows Refuge hosts one of the largest nesting populations of greater sandhill cranes in Minnesota.
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This wetland complex, encompassing several thousand acres, includes two large shallow wetland lakes, Rice and Skunk, and one smaller open water wetland basin, Mud Lake. Large sedge meadow wetlands border the lakes and four watercourses flowing into them. These four watercourses, the Platte River, Skunk River, Rice Creek and Buckman Creek provide vital hydrologic inputs into the system. Three of the watercourses end here. Only the Platte River exits the complex.

Historically, the area was prone to extreme high and low water fluctuations. Flooding was routine in the spring due to snowmelt and runoff as the four watercourses brought water from the surrounding watershed into the wetland complex. Typically, as the summer progressed, the shallow lake basins would dry out, often to be reflooded by fall rains. This cycle favored the growth of wild rice and aquatic invertebrates that supported large concentrations of waterfowl in migration. Due to the abundant wildlife resources existing here, it was considered a premier hunting destination in Minnesota in the 1930s. To ensure continued public access to this wetland complex for sportsmen, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources began purchasing land in the area for their Wildlife Management Area System in the 1960s. Over the next several years, the State of Minnesota was successful in acquiring several large tracts of land totaling 850 acres adjacent to the lakes and area waterways. They also secured the authority and funds to place a dam and water control structure on the Platte River as it exited the wetland complex. A 320 foot long dam with six stoplog structures was constructed on the river in the early 1970s. This subsequently changed the character of the wetland complex from a free flowing river-based system to a system of impounded wetland basins.

During this same time, uplands surrounding the wetland complex continued to experience pressure from agricultural development. Isolated wetlands in adjacent agricultural fields were being drained, and remnants of native prairie, oak savanna and woodland habitats were being converted to large agricultural fields that could support center-pivot irrigation. In addition, surface and tile drainage accelerated in the larger watershed. As time went on, residential development also began to increase on the uplands adjacent to the wetland complex.

In 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formally identified 35,000 acres in this area as a nationally significant wetland complex for consideration as a potential wetland acquisition site under the authority of the Emergency Wetlands Resources Act of 1986. A Regional Wetlands Concept Plan for Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin identified this area as one of the last undisturbed wetland complexes in Central Minnesota and described it as an important area for waterfowl, greater sandhill cranes, diverse vegetation communities, and nongame species.

The formal study to designate all or a portion of this acreage as a national wildlife refuge began in 1990 and concluded in July 1992 with the completion of a final environmental assessment. This action officially authorized an acquisition boundary of 13,540 acres to be designated as Crane Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Included within the acquisition area are Rice, Skunk, and Mud lakes, adjoining wetlands, and adjacent upland areas. The uplands, used mostly for agriculture, have potential for restoration to globally imperiled oak savanna and other native vegetation types essential for the sustained health of the wetland complex itself.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) provided early financial support with the purchase of the first five properties within the acquisition boundary in early 1990. Upon approval for Crane Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in 1992, the management of these properties was conveyed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The first and only congressional appropriation for land acquisition was in 1995. This allowed the Service to buy the properties held by TNC and add others that were available from willing sellers. Since that time, other funding sources, including private donations and grants, have allowed the Fish and Wildlife Service to continue purchasing a small number of properties from willing sellers.

Efforts by the state, hunting clubs, TNC, local conservationists, and the Fish and Wildlife Service have helped protect the core wetland complex and restore smaller wetland basins on public and private lands within the authorized acquisition boundary and watershed. Although progress is being made toward the acquisition goal, development pressures continue to increase in this important area as the larger farms are subdivided for single family homes.

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