Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge
The area surrounding Sand Lake NWR was once a vast, rolling grassland interrupted only by the slow moving James River. Settlers arrived in 1887 and brought sweeping changes to the landscape. Farming and grazing depleted essential wildlife habitat, causing waterfowl populations to dwindle to alarmingly low numbers by the 1930's.
Congress established the Refuge in 1935 to preserve critical habitat for nesting and migrating waterfowl. The refuge lies in the rich, rolling lowlands of the James River valley. The James River, running 600 miles north and south through the Dakotas, forms a natural flight path for migrating birds. Each spring and fall, thousands of ducks, geese, and other migratory birds stop at Sand Lake. Sand Lake NWR is located in the heart of the Prairie Pothole Region, bounded on the east by the Prairie Coteau and on the west by the Missouri Coteau.
The refuge is comprised of a mosaic of different land types. Primary habitats include 11,000 acres of marsh and open water, 7,400 acres of grassland, 2,580 acres of cropland, 200 acres of woodland, and 300 acres of administrative land. The wetland component of Sand Lake is comprised of two main bodies of water, Sand Lake and Mud Lake. Natural marshes existed prior to the establishment of the refuge, but two major dams on the James, constructed shortly after the refuge was established, serve to enhance the previously existing wetlands.
The refuge supports important habitat for ducks, Canada geese, and many species of marsh and water birds. Fall migrations of snow geese may reach peaks of 250,000 individuals, whereas the spring migration has been documented at over 1.2 million. It is the home of the world's largest nesting colony of Franklins gulls, and supports other colonial nesting birds including white-faced ibis, Forster's terns, black terns, black-crowned night herons and cattle egrets. This unique area also provides excellent habitat for resident game species, such as white-tailed deer, ring-necked pheasant, and fur bearers.
Sand Lake Refuge offers a wide variety of activities for all visitors. Wildlife observation, photography, fishing, hiking, hunting, and educational activities are available to visitors. The refuge Headquarters complex is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. year-round. The refuge and interior roads are open January through mid-October each year, weather and road conditions permitting.
The refuge hosts its annual Eagle Day Open House the end of March each year. It is scheduled to coincide with the spring migration of snow geese and bald eagles. A Poster contest with the local elementary schools, guided bus tours, a live eagle and bird of prey presentation, and special talks are all a part of this annual event. It is open to the public and all activities are free of charge.
The refuge staff also offers talks and tours to local groups and organizations. Groups call the refuge office to set up tours or presentations. Many schools use the refuge as an outdoor campus in the spring and fall to supplement their science curriculum. The National Wildlife Refuge System, the importance of wetlands, and the wildlife of Sand Lake are most often stressed during their visits.
The spring migration of waterfowl can be spectacular at Sand Lake NWR. Snow goose populations have peaked at 1.2 million birds. Many other waterfowl species migrate in large numbers through the refuge also. During the summer, observation of song birds, herons, grebes, egrets and white pelicans is excellent. The fall migration brings back the snow geese with peak populations as large as 250,000, with similar numbers of ducks. The refuge Wildlife Information Line (605-885-6401) gives a prerecorded message with numbers of birds in the area and pertinent refuge information, such as road conditions.
The accessible Office/Visitor Center offers wildlife displays and exhibits to the visiting public. A 108-foot tower located in the Headquarters complex offers a bird's-eye view of the southern end of the Refuge. The Headquarters pool is home to a captive flock of giant Canada geese as well as many ducks.
The 15-mile seasonal auto tour route, which is open sunrise to sunset, April-mid-October, is a great way to experience the refuge. Visitors travel through the refuge's many different habitat types, viewing ducks, geese, deer, song birds and many other animals that live on the refuge. The best time to observe wildlife is in the morning and evening hours.
The Columbia Recreation Area has accessible restrooms, an accessible picnic shelter, and a 3/4-mile hiking trail. This Rec Area is located along Brown County Highway 16, approximately 1 mile south of the Headquarters complex.
The Hecla Recreation Area offers visitors a spot to fish along the James River on the northern end of the refuge. It is located along Brown County Highway 5.
Fishing is allowed at four locations on the refuge - Weismantel grade, Highway 10, Hecla Recreation Area, and the north bridge. All State regulations apply.
Waterfowl, pheasant, and deer hunting are allowed on the refuge. Waterfowl hunting is allowed in the 300 spaced blinds found along the refuge boundary. A 60-yard unarmed retrieval zone is associated with these blinds. Archery deer hunting begins November 1 each year. The length of the season changes every year. Sand Lake typically has 4 firearm deer seasons, the first beginning the day after the archery season. The refuge pheasant season begins the day after the last firearm deer season ends and runs through December 31 of each year.
The primary management focus on the refuge is to maintain the grasslands to provide premium nesting habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. This is accomplished by using several tools to manipulate the grasslands to increase vigor and species diversity. Grazing, haying and prescribed fire are used alone or as a combination to manipulate the grasslands to obtain the desired effects.
Limited water management of the two impoundments, Sand Lake and Mud Lake, is accomplished through the use of the two water control structures (WCS) associated with the two dams. The James River enters the refuge and flows unimpeded into Mud Lake. Mud Lake releases into Sand Lake, the larger of the two impoundments. The WCS at the Columbia dam releases the James River back into its river channel. Water levels are manipulated to provide excellent nesting habitat for colonial nesting birds during the summer. Water levels are also manipulated to maintain a good interspersion of wetland vegetation on the refuge.
The refuge farming program works with local producers to farm approximately 1,700 acres to provide food for migratory waterfowl and resident wildlife, to renovate deteriorated tame grass plantings, and to prepare weed-free seedbeds for tame and native grass seedlings.
The noxious weeds on the refuge, primarily Canada thistle and leafy spurge, are treated with biological and chemical agents in an attempt to reduce their invasion of refuge grasslands.
The refuge staff surveys wildlife populations throughout the year to monitor numbers of migratory birds and their nesting success, and to establish population trends for a number of species. The refuge monitors colonial nesting species, waterfowl nesting success, white-tailed deer populations, and neo-tropical species. The refuge is also checked for disease outbreaks throughout the summer months.
Directions and Additional Information
Sand Lake NWR is located 27 miles northeast of Aberdeen, South Dakota. To reach the refuge from Aberdeen, take U.S. Highway 12 east approximately 7 miles to Brown County Highway 16 (Bath Corner). Drive 20 miles north, through Columbia, SD, to the Refuge entrance road. Please call the refuge office at 605-885-6320 for directions from other areas.
If you need additional information, please contact the field station directly.
Sand Lake NWR
39650 Sand Lake Drive
Columbia, SD 57433
Phone: (605) 885-6320
Fax: (605) 885-6401
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication