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Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge celebrates 75th anniversary

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The site of one of the largest drainage projects in U.S. history now is a national wildlife refuge that aided in the comeback of giant Canada geese and provides habitat for a variety of wildlife species.

Saturday, Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge celebrates its 75th anniversary with an open house from 9 a.m. until noon.

Located northeast of Thief River Falls, Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge was established March 23, 1937, by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as Mud Lake Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. The designation officially ended an experiment that began in 1909 to drain the land for farming.

According to DelRay Sannes of Holt, Minn., the effort to develop what then was known as Mud Lake into farmland came at the end of the European immigration wave. Sannes' grandfather, Hilmer Moberg, was among the 150 to 200 homesteaders to settle in the Mud Lake area of Marshall County.

"Everything here was settled by 1890, and that was the last area to be settled in the county," Sannes said. "It was a land rush, really -- the last free land there was."

Boggy wilderness

The Comprehensive Conservation Plan for Agassiz refuge describes the land before settlement as a "boggy wilderness, checkered with wetlands and ponds." In 1909, the plan explains, state, local and private interests embarked on a massive drainage project to convert the landscape to farmland.

Then came the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. By 1933, records show, the cost of the drainage project had reached $1 million without the farming success that had been predicted. High tax assessments to cover the cost burdened both landowners and the county, forcing the state Legislature to pass a statute absorbing the taxes and authorizing the eventual sale of the lands for establishing the Mud Lake Migratory Waterfowl Refuge.

According to the refuge's conservation plan, the Minnesota Conservation Department --precursor of today's Department of Natural Resources -- acquired more than 55,000 acres of the tax-forfeited land, which it sold to the federal government in 1937.

"The county was in terrific financial difficulties," Sannes said. "And that seemed to be one way to be able to bail both the state and the county out was to turn it over to the federal government again."

So began a process to restore the wetlands by establishing dikes and water control structures, much of which was done by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The refuge in 1961 was renamed Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, and today, the refuge covers 61,500 acres.

Sannes, who helped compile a history of the settlement and eventual relocation called "Memories of the Mud Lake Pioneers," said losing their land was difficult for the "Mud Lakers" who had called the area home.

In many ways, he said, it was like a smaller-scale version of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a hydroelectric project that displaced thousands of people about that same time.

"It really created a lot of hard feelings in this area," said Sannes, a retired English teacher. "I've known quite a few of them over the years, and those hard feelings lasted -- it still is around even in the next generation, people who had never lived out there.

"It could not have been easy for the refuge managers and personnel during those early years," he added.

'Giant' success

According to Lynda Knutsen, visitor services specialist at Agassiz, the refuge played a significant role in the recovery of the giant Canada goose. It's hard to believe today, but the Canada goose subspecies once was on the brink of extinction.

In the early 1950s, refuge personnel received geese from refuges in Michigan and Missouri, and local sportsmen helped build a 150-acre goose pen. By 1962, surveys showed more than 100 Canada goose pairs on the refuge, and today, more than 600 pairs mate annually on the refuge. Most of the artificial structures have been removed.

Agassiz refuge also has hosted dozens of research projects, including an extensive campaign in the late 1990s to learn more about the declining moose population, and smaller studies on everything from American bitterns to Franklin's gulls.

The public duck-banding night that the refuge hosts every fall is among its most popular attractions.

"There are just a lot of neat stories about the refuge once you dive in," Knutsen said.

Saturday's open house includes refuge tours at 9:30 and 10:30 a.m., two bird walks and fire equipment demonstrations. Kids will have the opportunity to build bluebird boxes, participate in a scavenger hunt and try out the firefighting equipment.

Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge is 12 miles north of Thief River Falls on state Highway 32 and 11 miles east on County Road 7. For more information, contact the refuge at (218) 449-4115 or check out the website at fws.gov/Midwest/agassiz.

By the numbers

Mud Lake Migratory Waterfowl Refuge was established in 1937 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Renamed Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in 1961, the refuge has:

• 37,400 acres of wetland and shallow open water.

• 11,650 acres of shrubland.

• 9,900 acres of woodland.

• 1,710 acres of grassland.

• 670 developed acres (roads, parking lots and buildings).

• 170 acres of cropland managed for wildlife.

-- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

(701) 780-1148