La Crosse Local

Feathers, Fins, and Fun: Celebrating 100 Years of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge

Upper Mississippi River Refuge
Upper Mississippi River Refuge

Get ready to dive into a century of conservation! The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, a 261-mile haven for wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts right in our backyard, is turning 100! This incredible refuge is not just a beautiful place to explore, it’s a crucial sanctuary for countless species and a vital part of our local ecosystem.

In this post, we’ll take a trip down memory lane, exploring the refuge’s rich history and the incredible conservation efforts that have kept it thriving.


History of the Refuge

Upper Mississippi River Refuge
Great Egret | Upper Mississippi River Refuge

Did you know our beloved Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge has a backstory that’s as wild as the wildlife it protects?

This incredible 261-mile haven (the nation’s longest!) for bald eagles, fish, and everything in between owes its existence to a dream team of passionate locals back in the Roaring ’20s.

As La Crosse District Manager Tim Miller put it, “This was all planned to be levied and drained. That was the reason why they decided to establish a National Wildlife Refuge here because people did not want to see that happen.”

Winona businessman John Latsch and his fishing buddy Will Dilg (a Chicagoan with a serious love for our local backwaters) were at the forefront of the movement to save the refuge. They saw the threat looming large – draining and developing this natural gem.

Dilg, a man of action, founded the Izaak Walton League in 1922 and rallied a nationwide movement to protect these precious public lands.

Hallie Schulz, the refuge visitor services manager, mentioned this interesting piece of history, “(Dilg) got the League of Women Voters, which they had just gotten the right to vote not too long before. There were millions of women who were backing it. He got legislation moved so fast through Congress.”

Schulz wasn’t kidding! In less than two years, their “Upper Mississippi Wild-Life Refuge” bill sailed through Congress and landed on President Coolidge’s desk for a signature. Talk about a power move! You can read more about it here and here.

The rest, as they say, is history… 100 glorious years of it.

Significance of the Refuge

Upper Mississippi River Refuge
Ambrough Slough Landing – Prairie du Chien | Upper Mississippi River Refuge


The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge isn’t just a pretty place; it’s a lifeline for our environment. It plays a crucial role in protecting and restoring the delicate ecosystems along the mighty Mississippi. Think of it as a giant green sponge, filtering water, preventing erosion, and providing essential habitat for all sorts of critters.

La Crosse District Manager Tim Miller said. “There’s floodplain forests where the wildlife uses the trees and the other vegetation that’s there. We have prairies on the refuge. We also have marshes, wet meadows, and lakes, and rivers, all within the same system.” 

But it’s not just about the plants and animals. The refuge is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, too! Whether you’re a seasoned angler, a birdwatching pro, or just looking for a peaceful paddle, there’s something for everyone. The refuge offers endless opportunities to connect with nature and create lasting memories, from hiking and biking trails to fishing hotspots and wildlife viewing areas. 

“It’s pretty neat to see all these people out fishing today, and really enjoying it,” Hallie Schulz, the refuge visitor services manager, said. “I always like to say that this is your national wildlife refuge, this is your public land, so come out and enjoy it.”

Fun fact: Did you know that the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is a bald eagle hotspot, boasting over 250 active nests? In the 1970s, this number dwindled to a single nest, making the refuge’s current eagle population a soaring success story. Thanks to conservation efforts and the banning of harmful pesticides, these majestic birds have made a triumphant comeback, reminding us of the power of protecting our natural treasures.

Centennial Celebration Events

Rain or shine, the refuge is pulling out all the stops for the 100th birthday bash, and you’re invited!

Join the festivities on Saturday, June 22nd, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the La Crosse District Visitor Center. This family-friendly event will be packed with fun activities and educational exhibits, allowing you to get up close and personal with the refuge’s incredible wildlife and dedicated staff.

Explore interactive displays, chat with knowledgeable experts, and enjoy live demonstrations. You’ll learn about the refuge’s conservation efforts, meet some of the fascinating creatures that call it home, and even participate in hands-on activities that will deepen your appreciation for this natural wonder.

In the interest of preparedness, the Refuge called to move the event indoors.

Don’t miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime celebration! For more information and a full schedule of events, check out the refuge’s website or follow them on social media.

Upper Mississippi River Refuge
Eagle’s Nest | Upper Mississippi River Refuge


The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is a true gem in our backyard, and its 100th anniversary is a cause for celebration! From its humble beginnings as a sanctuary for migratory birds to its current status as a sprawling ecological marvel, the refuge has played an indispensable role in protecting our local environment and the countless creatures that call it home.

So let’s raise a glass (of local craft beer, of course!) to the refuge’s legacy of conservation, its dedication to protecting wildlife, and its commitment to providing unforgettable outdoor experiences for all. Whether you’re a lifelong resident or a first-time visitor, we encourage you to explore this natural wonder, support its ongoing conservation efforts, and join in the centennial festivities at the La Crosse District Visitor Center on June 22nd. It’s a celebration of nature, community, and the enduring spirit of this remarkable refuge.

It’s time to celebrate a century of conservation – see you there!

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