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Tamarac National Refuge celebrates 75 years

Early summer is a wonderful time to quietly observe the young of spring. 

Look for deer fawns hiding behind their mothers, bear cubs exploring their new world and eaglets demanding to be fed.

Experience the vibrant colors and fragrances of early summer woodland wildflowers including the showy pink lady slipper.

Listen for songbirds as they settle in for the summer season.

Wildlife watching

Here at Tamarac, wildlife is left undisturbed as they perform the mating rituals of spring. Portions of the refuge are closed to the public during this crucial time, but many viewing opportunities still exist.

The most optimum times for viewing wildlife occur around sunrise and sunset. But sometimes even an afternoon visit can be rewarding to the quiet, watchful observer.

To increase your chances of seeing wildlife, explore the edges of lakes, marshes and meadows the 5 mile Blackbird Wildlife Drive. If you feel inclined to exercise, hike the two mile long Old Indian Hiking Trail and experience the beauty of the maple basswood forest. Another option is to venture out on the new North Country Trail which traverses 14 miles through the southern half of the refuge.


Try your luck in one of our five lakes open to fishing. There are many varieties of fish to be caught including crappie, walleye, sunfish, northern pike and bass. A fishing map and regulations can be obtained at the refuge information kiosks or the visitor center.

A look at the history

In 1903, Pelican Island, the first national wildlife refuge was established in response to market hunting of pelicans and other wading birds in Florida.

It wasn’t long before other refuges were established to protect wildlife and their habitats. During the depression of the ’30s, local conservationists began to realize that people were not the only ones suffering hardship. With much of the land having been logged extensively, wildlife nearly decimated and suffering years of drought, they rallied in support of waterfowl and other wildlife through habitat restoration.

One such conservationist was Emil Frank, proudly referred to as the “father of Tamarac.”  He was a local game warden who had “intimate knowledge” of the area and who originally drew up the boundaries for the refuge.

Nationally, with a Duck Stamp program to raise funds, seed money from Congress and the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the FWS was able to begin a “crusade” to restore this wetland home.

“… bring back as near as possible, at least in this area those same abundant conditions of nature as they existed before the advent of civilization.”

These are the words of John N. Bruce, Assistant Civil Engineer in charge of the initial development of Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. It was in June of 1937, when a Civilian Conservation Corp camp was established and “Tamarac BF-2 was alive with action.”

One year later on June 2, 1938, President Roosevelt proclaimed the establishment of Tamarac Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. Up until 1941, the northern half of the proposed refuge made great strides in development which included patrol roads, trails, bridges, buildings, fire towers, water control structures, and habitat improvements which among many included the construction and set up of 800 wood duck boxes.

The southern half of the proposed refuge was still in private ownership consisting mostly of holdings belonging to hunting clubs and individual hunters. The controversy over obtaining these lands would last over twenty years and would include many interesting key players.

World War II and the passage of the “governor’s consent” law put a long hold on any further land acquisition.  This law, preventing the federal government from acquiring land within the southern half of the proposed boundaries, was introduced by Senator A. O. Sletvold of Detroit Lakes who was said to be employed by the “Rice Lake Syndicate,” referring to a private hunting club(s). 

Obviously, there was a lot of political maneuvering going on due to pressure from special interest groups, much as it occurs in today’s political arena.

In 1954, the future looked brighter thanks to State Senator Norman Walz and State Representative Harry Basford. They introduced a bill which would rescind the governor’s consent law. The gun clubs were caught off guard while the bill passed quietly without fanfare. Needless to say, they were very upset. But there was yet another stumbling block in the road for refuge supporters.

Under a treaty with Canada, the Migratory Bird Commission was required to approve all land acquisitions for migratory bird refuges. At this time, the commission did not consent to the proposed land acquisitions.

It wasn’t until the death of an “influenced” Minnesota commission member and at the urging of Minnesota congresswoman Coya Knutson, that the MBC finally “ordered completion of the refuge.”  This was in 1958. Gun clubs retaliated stating that the refuge was “not a duck producer, was being mismanaged, and that there would be a great loss in tax revenue.” 

They pressured government leaders into deciding that the land was only to be acquired if the owner requested the government buy them out.

During these years, U.S. Attorney, C. U. Landrum, a local supporter of the refuge, kept in close contact with Senator Hubert H. Humphrey and other democrats in Washington.

He was assured by Humphrey that the acquisition of land would take place and if necessary through condemnation. The ball finally got rolling when the Kennedy Administration took over. It was on June 14, 1961 that the Regional Director of the FWS advised their realty officers to start negotiations with the gun clubs and other land owners.

Several cases ended up in federal court. Finally in 1964 all private lands were acquired. In 1965, all other land acquisitions (county and state) were completed.

As we enjoy the beauty and wildlife of Tamarac today, we must reflect back on those people who made this refuge a reality. It wasn’t just the “movers and shakers” of state and federal government. It was citizens like you and me who made a difference because of their strong beliefs and perseverance.

It was people like Emil Frank, a local game warden, and Otto Kalhe, a member of the Becker County Sportsman’s Club – one of the few local businessmen to publicly support the refuge no matter the consequences.

It was people like F. C. Schraeder, who dedicated hours in writing detailed reports in support of the refuge to local and regional newspapers and politicians.

Thanks to these key people from our past, Tamarac NWR is and will continue to be a special place for generations of all life to come.

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service is upholding a promise made by Teddy Roosevelt long ago. It is the promise to “preserve wildlife and habitat for its own sake and benefit of the American people.” And it’s you, the American people, who can support your refuge system so that this legacy for wildlife can and will continue.