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Grays Lake Ecosystem

Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Date Established: June 17, 1965

Acreage Controlled: 18,330
(Estimate within boundary: 32,825)

FWS Region: 1 Portland, OR

Location: Southeast Idaho, in Bonneville and Caribou Counties, about 30 miles north of Soda Springs near town of Wayan.

         74 Grays Lake Road
         Wayan, ID 83285
         (208) 574-2755
Photo of Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge sign.

To Protect to Restore:

One of the over 500 National Wildlife Refuges in the United States, Grays Lake Refuge was established in 1965 to protect and restore habitat for nesting waterfowl. The area was also recognized for its value to other wildlife, including the greater sandhill crane.

Landscape Characteristics:

Grays Lake lies in a relatively remote and sparsley populated high altitude mountain valley, and is a marsh composed principally of hardstem bulrush and cattail. Winters are usually long, and water in the basin marsh is primarily accumulated from snowmelt. Within the approximately 32,825-acre Refuge boundary, about 60 percent is shallow-watered bulrush marsh, 20 percent wet and semi-wet meadow, 12 percent brush and grasslands, 5 percent shallow open water, and 3 percent aspen forest and willow thicket.

Managing Wildlife and Habitat:

Managing wildlife mostly means managing habitat. Management efforts at Grays Lake are focused on measures to benefit cranes and waterfowl. These practices are timed to create good feeding and loafing sites for cranes and geese.

To supplement the natural foods available to wildlife, the refuge grows grain crops. This encourages cranes and geese to stay on refuge lands where they are safest and provides extra nutrients to prepare them for migration. These food plots also help in keeping the abundant sandhill cranes and geese from feeding on nearby farmers' crops where they may not be welcome.

One ongoing project is development of clearings, ponds, and islands in the lake bed. This creates more open water in the dense marsh vegetation and benefits many nesting waterbirds and waterfowl.

While Grays Lake is a natural lake, its water level is regulated according to agreements which balance the needs of wildlife with various off-refuge interests. Completed refuge land acquisition will open the door to new water management which would improve conditions for refuge wildlife.


Of the 199 species of birds which frequent the Refuge, 128 species nest at Grays Lake including cranes, trumpeter swans, geese, ducks, and other waterfowl. The endangered whooping crane, peregrine falcon, and bald eagle are present. Mammals include mule deer, moose, elk, beaver, muskrat, red fox, coyote, long-tailed weasel, striped skunk, and badger.

A Home for Waterfowl

Grays Lake Refuge was established with the primary objective of protecting and restoring habitat for nesting ducks and geese. Common nesting species include the mallard, cinnamon teal, canvasback, lesser scaup, redhead, and Canada goose. Trumpeter swans have been reestablished on the refuge as an important nesting species. Grays Lake is one of the best areas in this region to observe the rare trumpeter. In a typical breeding season the refuge may produce up to 5,000 ducks, 2,000 geese, and over 20 swans. Ducks and geese are the last birds to migrate south in the fall. They will remain until freeze-up, usually in November.

The Crane Story

To many, Grays Lake Refuge means cranes. This is appropriate since the refuge hosts the largest nesting population of greater sandhill cranes in the world. In some years over 200 pairs have nested at Grays Lake. Sandhills begin arriving at the refuge in early April. Refuge lands also serve as a fall "staging area", a place where cranes gather before migrating south to New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico for the winter. During the staging period in late September and early October, as many as 3,000 cranes have been found in the valley at one time.

Grays Lake's uniqueness as prime crane habitat made the refuge a choice site for an attempt to boost the number of endangered whooping cranes, a close cousin to the sandhill crane. Whooper eggs brought in from elsewhere were placed in sandhill crane nests. Sandhill crane "foster parents" hatched, raised, and guided young whoopers on their migration south. Ultimately, the whoopers did not breed and the experiment was ended. Efforts to create additional whooping crane flocks in other parts of North America are now underway.

A Haven for Waterbirds

While cranes may be the most conspicuous of the waterbirds at Grays Lake, a great many others may also be seen. Franklin's gulls nest in large colonies in bulrush habitat along with a lesser number of white-faced ibis. Grebes, bitterns, and elusive rails are present. Wet meadows, shallow water, and mudflats harbor such shorebirds as curlews, snipe, phalaropes, and willets.

Other Wildlife, Large and Small

Refuge habitat supports a variety of other migratory birds including eagles, hawks, falcons, and many species of songbirds. Non-migratory birds include ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse. Assorted mammals are also present at Grays Lake. Moose, elk, and mule deer use the refuge and are common throughout the area. Smaller mammals regularly seen include muskrats, ground squirrels, and badgers.

Public Use:

Visitor use is relatively light. Wildlife observation and photography are the principal non-consumptive activities. Waterfowl hunting is permitted in designated areas. Visitor access is seasonally limited to avoid disturbance to sensitive wildlife.

Visiting the Refuge:

Visitors are welcome at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge. At times, however, large portions of the refuge are closed to public entry to minimize disturbance to wildlife.


Hunting Area — Hunting is permitted only in those areas designated "Open to Entry". A map of such areas is available at Refuge Headquarters.

Refuge grainfields are subject to temporary closure. Watch for closure signs.

Licenses — All hunters must carry a valid State hunting license and all required State and Federal stamps, validations, and permits.

Seasons — Dates, hunting hours, and bag limits for species listed below correspond to the State regulations.

Species — Ducks, geese, coots, and mergansers may be hunted. All other species of wildlife are protected and may not be killed.

Boats — Although non-motorized boats are permitted, a boat is not necessary for waterfowl hunting on the refuge. There are no launching ramps and the marsh is suitable for car-top type boats only.

Blinds — Temporary blinds of natural vegetation may be constructed, but such blinds shall be available for general use on a first-come, first-served basis. Construction of permanent blinds is prohibited.

Personal Property — All personal property including boats and decoys must be removed from the refuge at the end of each day.

Alcohol — The use or possession of alcoholic beverages while hunting is prohibited.

Vehicles and Parking — Use of any motorized vehicle is permitted only on the roads designated on the map. Permission should be obtained from landowners before crossing private land to enter open portions of the refuge. You should park in a manner that does not obstruct gates or traffic.

Pets — are allowed if on a leash or under close control.

Weapons — Weapons are prohibited in all areas except the designated hunting areas during the hunting season.

Prohibited Activities — No camping, overnight parking, fire, fishing, or collecting items of antiquity, including Indian artifacts.

Nearby Conveniences:

While Grays Lake Refuge is somewhat remote, certain conveniences are available to the visiting public in the vicinity of the refuge:

Groceries and Gasoline — There is a small general store at Henry, Idaho, approximately 17 miles southwest of Grays Lake, and at Freedom, Wyoming, about 20 miles east.

Motels and Restaurants — The nearest of these are in Henry and Soda Springs, Idaho, or in Alpine and Thayne, Wyoming.

Camping — There are public campgrounds in the adjacent Caribou National Forest. Gravel Creek Campground is about 9 miles south of Refuge Headquarters. Pinebar and Tin Cup Campgrounds are about 10 and 16 miles from the refuge along State Highway 34, between Wayan, Idaho and Freedom, Wyoming.


Southeast Idaho National Wildlife Refuge Complex

The Southeast Idaho NWR Complex administers five units of the Refuge System: Camas, Bear Lake, Grays Lake, and Minidoka NWRs and Oxford Slough Waterfowl Production Area. Each has wildlife recreational opportunities. For more information, here are phone numbers to call:

Southeast Idaho NWR Complex
4425 Burley Drive, Suite A
Chubbuck, ID 83202
(208) 237-6615

Administrative Background:

Legal Mandates


Acquisition Authorities:

Additional Legislative Guidance:

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