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Natural Areas of North Dakota

Sullys Hill National Game Preserve

GIF--Location of Natural Area


Michael McEnroe

Directions: From Fort Totten, 1 mile east.

Sullys Hill on the south shore of Devils Lake combines a unique plant community with a diverse, reintroduced mixture of wildlife species in an area of historic and archaeological significance. The wooded, glacial moraine hills rise to an elevation of about 1,735 feet, or some 300 feet above the waters of Devils Lake.


In 1904, Sullys Hill was set aside as a national park by proclamation of President Theodore Roosevelt. Ten years later Congress established the big game preserve.

Sullys Hill was transferred from the National Park System to the National Wildlife Refuge System in 1931. Since that time, preservation of the bison and elk has been assured and the preserve is now managed to stress outdoor education, wildlife-oriented recreation, and range management. The preserve now includes 1,674 acres, with 994 acres in the big game unit and 680 acres in the hay unit south of the town of Fort Totten.

The buffalo herd started from six animals and is managed at a population of 30-35 animals. The elk herd started with 15 animals and has been managed for a herd of 15-25 animals. Four white-tailed deer were introduced to the park and the current herd is maintained at about 20-30 animals. Prairie dogs were introduced to the preserve in 1975 and currently number about 75 animals in a town that is expanding. Several wild turkeys were released in 1986 but they move on and off the preserve at will.

The bird list for the Sullys Hill area includes 269 species, including loons, eagles, and in 1986, a pileated woodpecker. The woodlands of the preserve provide habitat for birds not normally found in North Dakota.

The preserve's wildlife community also contains many other species, including mammals such as foxes, raccoons, skunks, weasels, mink, gray and fox squirrels, muskrats, rabbits, woodchucks, and beavers.

Sullys Hill contains a mixture of forest and native prairie ecosystems essential for its wildlife. The climax forest is dominated by American elm and basswood. Cooler, dry areas and the north-facing slopes contain bur oak and green ash.

Some people attribute the development of the climax forest at Sullys Hill to the "fire shadow" effect. The area was surrounded on three sides: west, north and east by Devils Lake, and to the south by the Sheyenne River, and was thus protected from prairie fires. But other changes have come to this landscape.

Beginning in 1868, bricks for the buildings of present Fort Totten were kilned on the north slope of Sullys Hill and floated across Fort Totten Bay on barges. It was soon discovered that due to limestone pebbles in the clay, the bricks would disintegrate on becoming wet. The entire fort had to be painted to keep the bricks intact. The clay pits are still evident at the very base of Sullys Hill.

From the scenic overlook on Sullys Hill, the old buildings of Fort Totten can be seen. The fort is now a state historical park. The walls are 2-3 feet thick. The original log fort was located about 1/2 mile north near the present St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Until 1911, a steamship from Devils Lake used to dock in the bay below Fort Totten.

Artifacts of historic and prehistoric origin were discovered that led to inclusion of Sullys Hill in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. The combination of the lake, woodlands, and prairie ecosystems provided a diverse group of resources for two prehistoric cultures. The earliest artifacts were from the Middle Woodland Culture, perhaps 1,800 years old. Analysis of the artifacts suggests a seasonal big game (primarily bison) hunting focus.

Analysis of the soils suggests that the lake rose and flooded the Sullys Hill site, and then receded. A second culture, the Lake Woodland Culture then used the area. The artifacts showed evidence of seasonal food procurement, primarily use of elk and deer, and minimal use of bison. There are also several Woodland Culture burial mounds that have been identified within the boundaries of the preserve.

Facilities: An auto-tour route, picnic area, and nature trail are available to the public at no charge. During the winter, approximately 1 1/2 miles of cross-country ski trails are maintained for public use. The preserve is generally open from May 1 through October 31 each year. Approximately 50-60,000 visitors annually visit Sullys Hill.

Administration and Contact: Sullys Hill Game Preserve is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For more information write: Sullys Hill, c/o Devils Lake WMD, P.O. Box 908, Devils Lake, ND 58301.

MICHAEL McENROE is project leader of the Devils Lake Wetland Management District in Devils Lake, ND.

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