Necedah National Wildlife Refuge: The Land of Yellow Waters

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116906828714190.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘National refuges like Necedah are preserving America’s natural history.‘);

Some 10,000 years ago, the retreating glaciers that covered a large portion of North America left behind vast peat bogs and sand ridges known as the great Central Wisconsin Swamp or Marsh. Today, this vast complex of wetlands, open lands and woodlands form the setting for many small communities and the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.

Necedah is a Winnebago (Ho Chunk) Indian word meaning “land of yellow waters,” and refers to the yellow-stained waters of the area resulting from mineral deposits in the soil. The waters from the refuge drain into the Wisconsin River, some 7 miles to the east. The Sauk, Fox, Potawatami and Ojibwa tribes also occupied this region at various times.

European settlers first came to this region in the early 1700s, and logging was followed by extensive drainage of wetlands to be used for farming. But farming was difficult because of the short growing season and the poor soil, and after a series of devastating fires in the early1930s, many farmsteads were abandoned, and land for the refuge was acquired under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935. March 12, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the bill that established the 43,656-acre Necedah Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, known now as the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Necedah is the largest f several wildlife refuges in Wisconsin

Necedah refuge is probably best known for its recent efforts to save the endangered whooping crane. This beautiful and majestic bird has been teetering on the brink of extinction for many years after their population sank to an all-time low of 15 birds in 1941.It is estimated that about 1,400 of these cranes existed in 1860. For years, the birds over wintered in a refuge on the Texas coast, where their numbers very gradually increased, but wildlife biologists wanted to establish another over wintering ground for them in Florida, and this project was undertaken by personnel at Necedah in 2001.

Whooping crane chicks hatched elsewhere are reared at Necedah in close association with humans. When they acquire adolescence, they are guided to a refuge in Florida (exact location is classified information) by an ultra light aircraft flown by a pilot dressed as a whooper. It is hoped that once the flight is made to the winter habitat in Florida, the cranes will migrate in the late spring back to Necedah on their own. In 2006, 17 cranes followed the aircraft safely to Florida, and a few individuals in the Rockford area were fortunate enough to see the migration pass this area.

In addition to the whooping crane, Necedah plays host to several other endangered or threatened species. Necedah is the southern most habitat for the gray wolf in Wisconsin. This predator, but important part of the fauna of an ecosystem, was placed on the endangered species list in 1967, when only a few remained. Today, however, they have increased in numbers with several packs firmly established in northern and central Wisconsin.

A not-so-ostentatious threatened species as the gray wolf is the Karner blue butterfly. This tiny, beautiful insect is found on Necedah’s barrens habitat where wild lupine grows. The larvae of Karner’s blue feeds almost exclusively on this plant while the adult feeds on nectar from a variety of flowers.

Bald eagles, which are no longer endangered, nest in several locations on the refuge and can usually be seen soaring over wetlands looking for fish.

Necedah is a birdwatcher’s paradise during the warm months of the year with several hundred different species having been recorded and listed in a brochure distributed by the refuge. Waterfowl especially like to make Necedah their home base.

One thing that impressed me about Necedah National Wildlife Refuge on a recent visit is that it is user-friendly. Hunting and fishing are permitted in certain areas at various times, and observation points are established in certain areas called “hot spots,” where the visitor can view the wildlife inhabiting the different ecosystems. Guided tours by Refuge personnel are also available at times, one of which allows the visitor to observe the whoopers at close range.

The refuge is located about 150 miles from Rockford and about three miles west of Necedah, Wis. on highway 21. The main entrance and office complex is 15 miles east on highway 21 from Interstate 94 at Tomah, Wis.

If you are a nature lover and have not visited Necedah Refuge you should make plans this spring to take the three hour trip to one of the few remaining gems in the natural world. Plan to spend at least a day there to explore the many different habitats on the vast reserve. Motels with reasonable rates are available in both Necedah and Tomah. A visit to Necedah Refuge is truly a big adventure.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Jan. 17-23, 2007, issue

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