Sullys Hill National Game Preserve: Roadwork presents opportunitiesAt Sullys Hill National Game Preserve, road construction and the resulting decline in visitation have presented an opportunity to shift gears from serving the public to completing some much-needed habitat projects and work inside the visitor center.
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
FORT TOTTEN, N.D. — The constant presence of heavy equipment has complicated travel for tourists and others this summer across the Lake Region, as road crews scramble to keep up with the ever-rising Devils Lake.
But at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve, the resulting decline in visitation has presented an opportunity to shift gears from serving the public to completing some much-needed habitat projects and work inside the visitor center.
In the long run, the summer setback will enhance the experience for visitors to the 1,674-acre preserve, which is named after Gen. Alfred Sully, who led an expedition to the area in the 1860s.
According to Roger Hollevoet, manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Devils Lake Wetland Management District, one of the focuses this summer is re-establishing some of the preserve’s oak savanna, a lightly forested, more open habitat being overtaken by shrubs and brush.
“Historically, grazing animals moved through and kept the oak savannas open,” he said.
In other areas, there’s an emphasis on regenerating forest cover. During a recent tour of Sullys Hill, Hollevoet pointed out “exclusion sites” that have been fenced off to keep animals such as elk and bison away from the trees.
Crews also have conducted prescribed burns to enhance grassland habitat and more aggressively control noxious weeds.
This isn’t a normal year with all of the construction, but Hollevoet said Sullys Hill traditionally draws about 61,000 visitors annually, along with 5,000 students who participate in a variety of educational programs.
“It’s mainly a destination spot when people want to come to Devils Lake,” he said.
The preserve’s 6,000-square foot visitor center, built in 2004, is a centerpiece. The state-of-the-art facility includes two classrooms, a waterfowl photo gallery featuring Delta Waterfowl photographer Fred Greenslade, and lifelike dioramas depicting North Dakota’s prairies, wetlands and forested areas.
The dioramas feature a variety of wildlife mounts, ranging from waterfowl and shorebirds, to full-bodied mounts of a white-tailed deer and bull elk.
Because of the road construction, which is scheduled to continue through this fall, Hollevoet said the visitor center this summer only is open by appointment.
“If people are coming out with relatives or whatever, we’ll make sure they get in,” he said.
Gates to Sullys Hill are open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. throughout the summer.
The history of Sullys Hill dates to 1904, when President Theodore Roosevelt designated the site as a national park. Elk, bison and white-tailed deer, which had been decimated by overhunting, were reintroduced to the preserve in 1917 and 1918, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Sullys Hill this year had about 18 elk and 15 bison before calving season.
Congress transferred the preserve to the National Wildlife Refuge System in 1931 “as a big game preserve, refuge and breeding grounds for wild animals and birds.”
That mission, Hollevoet said, continues today. He said the philosophy differs, in some ways, from other refuge properties in the Devils Lake Wetland Management District.
“This is everything but hunting,” Hollevoet said. “It’s more of getting the public outdoors and understanding and appreciating wildlife and their habitat. Our major goal is nature-based public use.”
There’s plenty to see at Sullys Hill, from the bison and elk to a prairie dog town established in 1975. About 260 bird species also have been documented on the refuge, including warblers, flycatchers, raptors and numerous shorebird species.
“It’s a really rich bird life here,” Hollevoet said. “You’ve got this prairie (all around), and in this area, you have this postage stamp that’s forested.”
Hollevoet said plans are in the works to expand educational offerings at Sullys Hill. Besides its two visitor center classrooms, Sullys Hill offers a remote classroom along the hiking trail.
“Our main goal is to increase our education with area schools,” Hollevoet said. “We can do whatever teachers want to do.”
The preserve also is exploring a partnership with Dickinson State University to develop a Teddy Roosevelt kiosk.
“Anybody that visits the visitor center could have access to all the known files on Teddy Roosevelt, the ‘Conservation President,’” Hollevoet said.
Just as Devils Lake has forced officials to raise roads, the rising water has meant changes at Sullys Hill. The original headquarters has been underwater several years, Hollevoet said, and the new visitor center was built on higher ground.
“We’ve had to move everything from the original site,” Hollevoet said. “You can only get to the old headquarters by boat now.”
This year, rising water forced refuge staff to close a portion of the auto tour route. Instead of a loop, the four-mile auto tour now is a “there-and-back” route. But visitors still can access the preserve’s five overlooks, including the Vista Overlook that is worth the 158 steps it takes to reach the top, even if it means some huffing and puffing to get there.
As bison graze in the distance, it’s easy to imagine what the landscape might have looked like before settlement.
The visitor center is a “green” facility, Hollevoet said, with a geothermal heating system that circulates ethylene glycol from 20 wells 110 feet below ground. The system pumps warm air out of the building and back underground in the summer and extracts heat from underground to warm the building in the winter.
Eight photovoltaic solar panels outside the visitor center power the pumps and, like sunflowers, pivot to track the sun.
Hollevoet said this summer’s limited schedule has provided an opportunity to put the finishing touches on the visitor center. There still are a few bugs to work out with the five audio-visual panels that are part of the dioramas, for example. Construction also is set to begin this fall on a 250-seat outdoor amphitheater adjacent to the visitor center.
“Once the flooding and road construction issues slow down, we hope to rekindle the promotion of Sullys Hill as a destination for eastern North Dakota,” Hollevoet said.
Events such as the Friends of Sullys Hill group’s annual Birding Festival, postponed this year, and Winter Fest, also will return, he said.
“As we grow and get more help from our friends group, we’ll provide more things, too,” he said.
It might be less obvious than the road construction, but plenty is happening at Sullys Hill these days.
“We hope Teddy Roosevelt would be proud” Hollevoet said.
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Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to email@example.com.