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Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge

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Ortonville, Minnesota


The upper reaches of the Minnesota River in west central Minnesota are a refuge for wildlife - and are fascinating to people interested in wildlife-oriented recreation.

Located two miles southeast of Ortonville near the Minnesota-South Dakota border, Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge offers recreational opportunities to visitors throughout the year.

The River Valley

The Minnesota River winds 11.5 miles through the refuge. From an airplane, the river looks like a wavy line stretching along the bottom of a much wider valley.

The wide valley was carved thousands of years ago. Melting ice from glaciers caused a huge lake to form in northwestern Minnesota. This lake, called Lake Agassiz, overflowed to the south.

In time, these torrents of water eroded a river bed named the glacial River Warren. Today, the quiet Minnesota River occupies the bottom of the old glacial river.

Look for evidence of glacial times. Try to catch a view of the high bluffs on either side of the river. The valley is 1.5 miles wide at the upper end of the refuge and four miles wide at the lower end. Imagine the time required tor a river to carve a valley of this size!

Human History

Little is known about early native tribes that used the Minnesota River as their highway.

But, Dakotah Indians lived along the river banks at the time the earliest settlers arrived in Western Minnesota. Some interesting Indian and early settler sites are still visible.

A number of farms were present in the river bottomlands in 1971 when the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge was authorized.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam to create a large reservoir, and then in 1975 transferred land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Through a cooperative agreement, the Corps still maintains the water control facilities, but the USFWS has management responsibility for all 10,795 acres of refuge lands.

Habitats for Wildlife

A wide variety of habitats exist on the refuge -- from the wet world of the river and reservoir areas to the dry world of the granite rock outcrops.

The dam in the Minnesota River created an additional 4,250 acres of wetlands which provide a stopping-off place for migrating waterfowl and a home for summer residents such as: common egrets, great blue and black-crowned night-herons, cormorants, and many species of ducks.

Low-lying woodlands support migrating warblers and other song birds, as well as resident populations of deer and other mammals. Flooded woodlands containing American elm, ash, box elder and silver maple provide old tree trunks with hollow cavities which are good nesting sites for wood ducks and hooded mergansers. Some introduced species such as the Russian olive often are removed because of their tendency to spread into areas like "weeds." About 850 aces of refuge lands consist of low woodlands.

The refuge still contains about 1,700 acres of native prairie. This is typical tall grass prairie country, with occasional oak trees. Because many farm grasses, woody shrubs, and non-native flowers seed themselves among the native prairie species, refuge staff use controlled burns from time to time to restore and maintain a vigorous growth. A state effort to reestablish the prairie chicken in this region may be successful.

Approximately 4,000 acres of refuge lands are used to grow crops for wildlife or reestablish grassy areas which provide food, nesting areas, and cover for wildlife: Some areas have been seeded to native grass, others to mixtures of legumes and wheatgrass.

One of the most interesting habitats on the refuge is the 100 acres of granite rock outcrops. These bare rock areas support unusual species of cactus and other plants. The high outcrops provide some excellent views over the entire refuge and its wildlife populations.

Wildlife Watching

Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge offers exceptional opportunities for wildlife watching.

During spring and fall migrations, 17 species of ducks can be sighted in and around the refuge. Some of the more common species to be seen are: mallard, blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, pintail, redhead, and ruddy duck. Canada and snow geese also have been seen.

Many species become summer residents on the refuge. Western grebes, uncommon in Minnesota, are using the area to rear their young.

Other animal species to watch for include white tailed deer, gray partridge, muskrats, beaver, and woodchucks.

Wildlife watching always is more successful if done during morning or evening when animals are most active. A bird list is available at various points on the refuge.

Auto Touring

A four-mile auto tour route on the refuge is open to the public. Numbered stops along the way correspond to notes on a special auto tour leaflet which describes the features to watch for along the way. Pick up the leaflet at Stop #1.

The auto tour provides a view of the major habitats in the refuge. Be on the lookout for wildlife. Turnouts provide a place to park while watching.

Foot Trail

An interesting foot trail starts at the rest area near the interpretive shelter. A walk of about an hour's time will provide a close-up view of prairie plants, granite rock outcrops, river meanders and wildlife.

A special foot trail leaflet provides information keyed to numbered stops. Pick up the leaflet at the start of the trail.


The Minnesota River is one of the state's official canoe routes. Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge offers canoe access areas and parking.

Canoeing down the refuge's section of the river will require between a half and a whole day, depending on skill and the number of fallen trees or beaver dams encountered along the way.

There are no official portages except for a 150 yard portage at the low flow water control structure.

Canoeists must stay in the main river channel on a route marked with signs. The canoe trail is open from mid-April to September 30, but canoeing is best during high water time in the Spring.

Only canoes are allowed on the refuge, so do not plan a float trip with raft, inner tube, boat, or other devices. Motors are prohibited.


Fishing is a popular activity at the refuge. The best places are along the banks of the reservoir or the refuge's rivers-the Minnesota and the Yellowbank.

Look for fishing leaflets at the service spillway, low flow structure, and both canoe access points. The fishing seasons each year is consistent with the state regulations.


Hunting areas are available during the official state hunting seasons. Species open to hunting are gray partridge, cottontail rabbit, jack rabbit, gray and fox squirrel, pheasant, and deer.

Hunting leaflets are available in hunting area parking lots during the hunting season. Hunting season dates are consistent with the state regulations.

Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing

Cross-country skiers and snowshoers will find Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge an attractive place. Park outside the main entrance and ski or snowshoe wherever you would like to explore. Be careful to avoid steep drop-offs on granite rock outcrops. The easiest trail for beginners would be to follow the refuge roads.

Tips on Visiting the Refuge

Restrooms are provided on the refuge from spring to fall but no drinking water is available. Camping and building fires are prohibited. However, bring along a sandwich and a thermos, because there are enough areas to visit and wildlife to see to fill a whole day.

Remember to keep pets on leash. Swimming, horse-back riding, traveling by off-road vehicles or snowmobiles, or collecting any plants, animals, and artifacts also are not permitted.

The closest lodging is at Ortonville. The nearest public and private campgrounds are along the shores of Big Stone Lake.

For additional information contact:

                      Refuge Manager
                      Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge
                      25 Northwest Second Street
                      Ortonville, Minnesota 58278
                      Phone: (612) 839-3700

Return to Bird Checklist of Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge

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