USGS - science for a changing world

Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

  Home About NPWRC Our Science Staff Employment Contacts Common Questions About the Site

Checklists of the United States

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge

small state map showing location

Missouri Valley, Iowa

General Information

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge lies on the wide plain formed by prehistoric flooding and shifting of the Missouri River. Each spring and fall since the end of the last ice age, spectacular flights of ducks and geese have marked the changing seasons along this traditional waterfowl flyway.

Vast changes have taken place in the Missouri River Valley since settlement in the early 1800's. Land clearing, drainage projects, river channelization and flood control measures during the past 150 years have transformed the Missouri River floodplain from diverse wildlife habitat to fertile farmlands. DeSoto is part of a network of refuges devoted to preserving and restoring increasingly scarce habitat for migratory waterfowl and other wildlife.

A Home For Wildlife

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge's primary wildlife management role is to serve as a stopover for migrating ducks and geese. During typical years 200,000 snow and blue geese utilize the refuge as a resting and feeding area during their fall migration between the Arctic nesting grounds and the Gulf Coast wintering areas. Peak populations of 125,000 or more ducks, mostly mallards, are common on the refuge during the fall migration. October and November are the months of peak waterfowl use, with less spectacular concentrations of ducks and geese returning in March and early April. Bald eagles follow the geese into the area, with many wintering here until March. Peak numbers of bald eagles usually occur in late November and December, and again in early March. As many as 120 have been seen here at one time. Bald eagles are often seen perched in cottonwoods along DeSoto Lake when waterfowl are present, and good viewing opportunities are available from the DeSoto Visitor Center. An interesting assortment of warblers, gulls, shorebirds and other bird life can also be observed on the refuge during the fall and spring migration.

In the summer white-tailed deer with one or two fawns are often seen in the morning and evening hours beside refuge roads. Cottontails, raccoons, coyotes, opossums, and fox squirrels are also frequently observed along refuge roads and in fields. Backwater areas of DeSoto Lake and several wetlands on the refuge serve as habitat for beaver muskrat and an occasional mink.

Woods, fields of native prairie grasses, and the multiflora rose hedges along refuge roads attract a variety of songbirds and other wildlife, such as pheasants and bobwhite quail. Red-headed woodpeckers abound along the woodland edge. Wood ducks, perhaps the most beautiful of American waterfowl, may be seen in ponds throughout the refuge. Steep banks at several locations along DeSoto Lake provide burrowing sites for colonies of bank swallows.

Habitat Management

Nearly 3,000 of the refuge's 7,823 acres are farmed by neighboring farmers, a part of which is left in the fields as food for the migrating ducks and geese. Both migrant and resident wildlife, such as deer and pheasant, use farm crops to supplement the natural foods available on the refuge. Since 1965, several hundred acres of refuge fields have been reverted to native prairie grasses which provide an important source of nesting habitat and winter shelter for wildlife. They also provide for a more diverse natural area. Wildlife managers use both fire and haying as management tools to maintain healthy stands of native grasses.

Additional waterfowl management on the refuge includes the maintenance of wood duck nesting habitat. Wood duck boxes have been installed to provide nesting sites for DeSoto's principal resident duck species. The manmade houses are used on areas where natural cavities in hollow trees are scarce.

One of DeSoto's most interesting programs involves the restoration of sandbar habitat to attract nesting piping plovers and Interior least terns. The least tern is considered endangered throughout the United States.

In Times Gone By

One of the first documented expeditions into this section of the Missouri River Valley occurred when Lewis and Clark traveled through the area seeking a land route to the Pacific. The explorers' journal entry, dated August 3, 1804, describes the party's historic meeting with Indians at the "council-bluff", after which the party set sail in the afternoon and encamped at the distance of five miles upstream. Although the river has changed its channel many times since, the Lewis and Clark campsite was probably located just below the river loop called DeSoto Bend, on or near the present refuge. Clark's journal notes an abundance of wildlife in the area including the expedition's first observation of a badger and "great numbers of wild geese."

By the mid 1800's, the Missouri River had become an artery for trade which opened the West. Steamboats carried supplies to the early fur trading posts, frontier settlements and mining towns. But the turbulent, snag-strewn "Big Muddy" took its toll of the early stern and side-wheelers. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, more than 400 steamboats sank or were stranded between St. Louis, Missouri and Ft. Benton, Montana. The 1860-era sternwheeler Bertrand was discovered on the refuge in 1968 and unearthed the following year. Today, refuge visitors may view the site of this discovery, and tour the DeSoto Visitor Center which exhibits the many thousands of artifacts recovered from the hull.

Visitor Opportunities

Visitor Center

Natural and cultural history displays.

Weekend wildlife films Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 and 2:45 p.m.

Auditorium for films, special exhibits and programs.

Open 9:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., daily.

Wildlife Drive

12 miles of all-weather road traverse the refuge along DeSoto Lake, woods, grasslands, freshwater ponds, and the Missouri River.

During the Fall Auto Tour, numbered stops corresponding to a special interpretive brochure will guide visitors and explain annual migration. You are asked to remain in your vehicle during this tour so disturbance to wildlife will be minimal and other visitors will have better viewing opportunities.

Bertrand Excavation Site

Visit the pond where the hull of the Bertrand steamboat lies buried. Displays explain its excavation and the historic significance of the Missouri River steamboat era.

Bertrand Trail

This trail explores the old river channel and takes the visitor through grassland and marsh habitats.

Cottonwood Trail

A 3/4-mile woodchipped trail through the woods allows for examination of the ecology along the Missouri River.

Wood Duck Trail

This 3/4-mile trail crosses Wood Duck Pond and leads through woods and along the grassland edge. Visitors may observe wildlife management practices demonstrated nearby.

Missouri Meander

Adjacent to the DeSoto Visitor Center, this twin-looped trail is open year-round. One loop provides a 900-foot paved trail accessible to those in wheelchairs or with walking difficulties. Crossing a footbridge, a 7/8-mile woodchipped trail meanders through woods and along DeSoto Lake.


Permitted on DeSoto Lake during public use season, April 15-September 30. Please refer to regulatory section.

Boating is limited to no-wake speeds, not to exceed 5 mph.

Fishing for largemouth bass, bluegill, catfish, crappie, northern pike, and walleye.

Much of the lakeshore is available for bank fishing. Some areas are accessible only by boat.

Archery and spearfishing for nongame species.

Ice fishing available during January and February, weather permitting.


Opportunities for archery and muzzleloader deer hunting, as well as waterfowl hunting are available on a limited basis.

Mushroom Gathering

Additional areas of the refuge are open to the public for mushroom picking during daylight hours from April 15 through May 31 when a profusion of morels usually emerge.

Public Use Calendar

Public Use Season: Spring - Summer


Environmental Education
Wildlife Observation Nature Trails
Visitor Center
Weekend Films

Refuge Hours: 6:00 a.m. -10:00 p.m.
Visitor Center: 9:00 - 4:30 p.m. Closed Easter Day.
Mushroom Hunting: April 15 - May 31 in designated areas.



Opportunity for viewing migrating waterfowl
Nature Trails
Special hunting programs, access as designated

Refuge Hours: 8:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Visitor Center: 9:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving Day.



Ice Fishing - January and February.
Special hunting seasons, access as designated.
Refuge access to the Visitor Center and Bertrand Excavation Site.
Nature trails are located adjacent to each.
The remainder of the refuge is closed to visitation to minimize the disturbance to wintering eagle, waterfowl and resident game populations.

Refuge Hours: 8:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Visitor Center: 9:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Closed Christmas and New Year's Day.

Early Spring


Waterfowl Migration Observation
Visitor Center
Nature Trails
Environmental Education

Refuge Hours: 8:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Visitor Center: 9:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

Special Refuge Regulations

These special regulations help protect resources and visitors at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. They are your responsibility.


Auto touring and wildlife observation are encouraged.

Vehicles are allowed on public roads and designated parking areas only.


Anglers are welcome on DeSoto Lake. State and federal regulations apply. Either an Iowa or Nebraska license is required. Some special regulations may be posted, in addition to the following regulations:


Boat operation is permitted in accordance with State regulations, and the following special regulations:


There are a number of picnic sites with grills on the refuge. Disposal of trash or litter, except in appropriate receptacles, is prohibited.

The following activities are PROHIBITED on DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge:

Fires must be confined to grills, which are provided at picnic sites. Open fires are prohibited.

Camping is not permitted on the refuge. Campsites are available at Wilson Island State Recreation Area, located southeast of the refuge.

Firearms, fireworks, airguns and all other weapons are prohibited, except when used in authorized refuge hunting programs.

Pets are not permitted on the refuge.

Swimming is not allowed on the refuge.

Other special conditions

For further information contact:
                       Refuge Manager
                       DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge
                       Rt. 1, Box 114
                       Missouri Valley, Iowa 51555
                       Telephone 712/642-4121

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge is one of a system of refuges administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and dedicated to the preservation and conservation of wildlife. The financial base for this system was established in 1934 through the passage of the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act. This act requires waterfowl hunters to purchase an annual migratory bird or "duck stamp". Funds collected from duck stamps sales have been used to purchase numerous refuges that provide habitats necessary to sustain a variety of wildlife for both hunters and nonhunters to enjoy.

Mission: As the Nation's principal conservation agency, the Department of the Interior has responsibility for most of our nationally-owned public lands and natural and cultural resources. This includes fostering wise use of our land and water resources, protecting our fish and wildlife, preserving the environmental and cultural values of our national parks and historical places, and providing for the enjoyment of life through outdoor recreation. The Department assesses our energy and mineral resources and works to assure that their development is in the best interests of all our people. The Department also promotes the goals of the Take Pride in America campaign by encouraging stewardship and citizen responsibility for the public lands and promoting citizen participation in their care. The Department also has a major responsibility for American Indian reservation communities and for people who live in Island Territories under U.S. Administration.

Return to Bird Checklist of DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices

Take Pride in America logo logo U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
Page Contact Information: Webmaster
Page Last Modified: Friday, 01-Feb-2013 18:47:29 EST
Reston, VA [vaww54]