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Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge

small state map showing location

Columbia, South Dakota


Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a key area in our national effort to preserve waterfowl. Every year, thousands of ducks, geese, and other migratory birds pause at Sand Lake to rest and feed.

The area surrounding Sand Lake was once a vast, rolling grassland interrupted only by the slow moving James River. White settlers arrived in 1887 and brought sweeping changes to the landscape. Farming and grazing depleted essential wildlife habitat and, by the nineteen thirties, waterfowl had dwindled to alarmingly low numbers.

Congress established Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in 1935 to preserve critical habitat for nesting and migrating waterfowl. Today, millions of ducks, geese, and other wildlife owe their existence to Sand Lake and other refuges operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

We can never return to the days when wildlife habitat was unaltered by man. But with both concern and an enlightened public, we can guarantee the survival of wild places for future generations.


The 21,451 acres in Sand Lake Refuge include a wide variety of wildlife habitats. Each harbors its own special collection of plants and animals that interact with one another during their struggle for existence. The best way to get to know the refuge is to visit its four distinct habitats. While traveling about the refuge look for different habitats and compare the kinds of plants and wildlife found in them. You will find that your appreciation for each area will grow with every new discovery.


Visitors to Sand Lake are never far from water. The slow moving James River supplies water to Mud and Sand Lakes which cover over half the refuge. These large shallow lakes form the heart of the refuge and many species of animals make their homes there. Waterfowl and wading birds are abundant and an occasional mink or beaver is seen.

Unique types of vegetation also abound in this water environment. Extensive stands of phragmites, cattail, and bulrush are interspersed with the open water providing important year-round wildlife cover.


Most of the trees now growing on the refuge were planted as windbreaks shortly after the refuge's establishment. The introduction of this new habitat has attracted many birds and mammals such as fox squirrels and mourning doves which were previously uncommon or unknown around Sand Lake. Common shelterbelt trees include green ash and Russian olive. Natural species growing near lakeshores include cottonwoods and willows.


At first glance the grasslands do not appear to be overrun with wildlife, but life abounds beneath the grassy cover. If you could peel back the grasses you would discover hundreds of grassy tunnels built by field mice. Hawks often seen soaring over the grasslands know of their existence as do red fox and striped skunks which search for food on the grasslands.

Nesting ducks and secretive birds also hide in the tall grass cover. A walk through the grasslands will produce many other surprises.


While driving through the refuge you will see several man-created habitats. These are important areas that are farmed to provide food and cover for thousands of migrating waterfowl and thousands of resident wildlife. These areas include stands of corn and small grains and apparent "weed patches." The weed patches are actually stands of dense nesting cover. A mixture of wheatgrass, alfalfa, and sweetclover is sown in strategic locations to improve nesting conditions for ducks and other wildlife.

The corn fields attract large concentrations of snow geese in the spring and fall. Pheasants and deer are also common visitors.


Sand Lake Refuge cooperates with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks to maintain a captive flock of 300 giant Canada geese. The giant Canada goose was near extinction until 1962 when the Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of South Dakota began a joint effort to restore the giant Canada goose to its former range in the Dakotas. Since the project's conception, several thousand of these large geese have been released into the wild. Wild flocks now nest in prime waterfowl habitat throughout the Dakotas.


The Fish and Wildlife Service's concern for wildlife does not stop at the refuge boundary. The Federal Wetlands Acquisition Program preserves scattered parcels of habitat for wildlife. Under this program, wetlands are protected through outright purchase or through easement purchases under which landowners agree not to drain, burn, or fill marshes. Over 20,000 acres of Waterfowl Production Areas (purchased land) and over 130,000 acres of easement lands are managed out of Sand Lake.

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


REFUGE HOURS - You may visit the refuge seven days a week from daylight to dark, between early April and late October. While here, you will have an excellent opportunity to become acquainted with a wide variety of plants and animals. Forty miles of roads wind through marshes, trees, and prairie grasslands. Visitors often see white-tailed deer, ring-necked pheasants, red foxes, and many kinds of birds.


HEADQUARTERS FIRST - Before venturing into the refuge, we suggest stopping at the headquarters for information and a climb up our 100-foot tower for a bird's-eye view of the refuge. We also recommend you visit the headquarters pool for a close-up view of ducks and geese.

BY CAR - Generally, people prefer to tour the refuge by car. Most wild animals feed and move about during morning and evening hours so try to plan your tour for these hours. You will see more wildlife if you drive slowly and stop occasionally to scan places where animals might hide.

ON FOOT- If you have time, explore the refuge on foot. A short walk off the beaten track often reveals many things that go unnoticed while driving If you are uncertain of what to look for, the following tips will make your walk more enjoyable.


Fishing is allowed in limited areas along county and state roads crossing the refuge. Limited waterfowl hunting is permitted and special seasons are held for deer and pheasant. Hunters should inquire at the refuge headquarters well in advance.


Picnic facilities are provided at the Columbia and Hecla Recreation areas. Fires and campstoves are allowed only in these areas. Campgrounds are located at Roy Lake, 45 miles east of the refuge and Richmond Lake; 10 miles northwest of Aberdeen.


Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge lies 27 miles northeast of Aberdeen, South Dakota. To reach the refuge from Aberdeen, take U.S. 12 east to County Road 16 (Bath Corner, 7 miles east of Aberdeen. ) Drive 20 miles north, through Columbia, to the refuge entrance.

For additional information contact:
                 Refuge Manager
                 Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge
                 RR 1, Box 25
                 Columbia, South Dakota 57433
                 Telephone: 605/885-6320

This resource is based on the following source:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  1983.  Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, 
     Columbia, South Dakota.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Unpaginated.
This resource should be cited as:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  1983.  Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, 
     Columbia, South Dakota.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Unpaginated.
     Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.
     (Version 22MAY98).

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