Horicon National Wildlife Refuge

  |  Gorp.com

I came from refuges that were fighting a few cattails, then I came here and see 32,000 acres of them!

That was Patti Meyers's reaction when she arrived at Horicon NWR as its new manager in 1991. The refuge is in the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States. She doesn't fight cattails now, but she and her staff control them with water level fluctuations while hosting more human visitors in a year than the peak 200,000 Canada geese that they come to see. But the marsh contains much more than spectacular numbers of geese — for one, it has some great hiking trails — and was named by famed birder Roger Tory Peterson as one of the 12 best birding spots in North America.

Meyers may have wished she had a cattail problem after discovering the chaos that faced her on her arrival. Groups were coming from every direction with their pet ideas, she says, and local governments and residents were furious over reports that private land would be taken for a planned refuge expansion. The land grab scare was based on false information which could fortunately be countered with what was correct purchases from willing sellers only is strict refuge system acquisition policy. But she needed to forge a consensus on a myriad of other issues.

With the help of the Citizens Natural Resource Association of Wisconsin, Meyers invited every interested group she could find to discuss marsh issues at an all day forum held in the nearby town of Horicon. Ninety people showed up and 8 hours later, she had what she wanted: a list of top three concerns. From that consensus, Meyers knew she needed to shift her focus away from controversial refuge expansion and toward water quality improvement, refuge public uses, and surrounding development impacts. That was in 1994 and the resulting Horicon Marsh Area Coalition made up of landowners, organization and government officials, and private citizens continues to function as a respected environmental forum for not just the marsh but the entire watershed, gathering and monitoring data and promoting through educational campaigns best land management practices. Meyers and the coalition are hoping to compile data to show that wetland restorations and changed land management are improving water quality in the marsh.

Horicon Marsh is in a glacier-created lake basin transformed into a marsh over thousands of years by silt and organic sediment buildup. It lies in the Rock River watershed 65 miles northwest of Milwaukee and derives its water supply from springs, streams, and runoff. Archeological records indicate that the abundant wildlife of the marsh sustained Native Americans for a period as long as 12,000 years.

Then came sudden and rapid change.

With the settlement of the city of Horicon, a dam was built at the marsh outlet in 1846 to power a saw mill, raising the water level 9 feet to create what was claimed the largest man-made lake in the world. The consistently high water began to ruin the aquatic vegetation necessary for wildlife. But complaining farmers whose fields were flooded got the dam removed by court order in 1869, only to have returning wildlife nearly decimated by unregulated market hunters.

The entire marsh was assaulted again in 1910 when farmers started a get-rich-quick scheme with a 14 mile drainage ditch through the middle of the marsh. Ten years later, the scheme ended in failure when the peat soils proved to be either too wet to work or unsuitable for growing crops. When neither flooding nor draining worked, the marsh was abandoned and for 12 years the exposed peat after drying would catch fire making the abused marsh of no use to either humans or wildlife.

Knowing what the marsh once was, local conservationists argued through several sessions of the Wisconsin legislature for funds to restore the former marsh. They finally succeeded in 1927 when money was appropriated and the marsh water level and vegetation was restored with a low-level dam. The southern third was also acquired as a state wildlife area.

Scarce state funds and the impressive results of the widely known marsh restoration caused the federal government to step in with the purchase of the northern 21,257 acres of the 32,000 acre marsh to establish Horicon NWR in 1941. The purchase was made with Migratory Bird Conservation funds, all of which at that time came from the sale of federal"Duck Stamps."

Underscoring the importance of Horicon Marsh is its designation in 1990 as a "Wetland of International Importance", a distinction given 775 sites world wide and only 15 sites in the United States including 9 national wildlife refuges. Such sites are selected based on significance as defined by international agreement reached in 1971 and commonly known as the Ramsar Convention held in Ramsar, Iran.

As a refuge for waterfowl, Horicon has done exceedingly well. It has become one of the largest nesting areas for redhead ducks east of the Mississippi. The success in attracting Canada geese was problematical, however, when the birds began invading farmer's fields after quickly consuming what was planted in refuge fields. Efforts to scatter the geese in the "goose wars" of the 1970s failed to work even though arsenals of air boats, air planes, and helicopters were employed for the task. The problem was minimized after more state wildlife areas were established to disperse the population and the state instituted a program of compensation to farmers for crop damage.

A total of 266 bird species have been recorded on the refuge. A recent May bird count produced 119 species. Recently, trumpeter swans returned to the marsh after a 100 year absence.

Other birds likely to be seen include dunlins, greater and lesser yellowlegs, Forster's and black terns, double-crested cormorants, snowy and great egrets, and herons. One might also catch glimpses of Virginia rails, soras, marsh wrens, and swamp sparrows. Henslow's sparrows were found in a recent special count for upland birds, a bird that is a candidate for federal listing as a species that is in trouble.

Mammal species on the refuge include white-tailed deer, red fox, squirrel, raccoon, skunk, mink, otter, opossum, and coyote. Muskrats are abundant and play an important role in keeping cattail growth controlled.

Upwards of 400,000 people visit the refuge to observe wildlife, especially from early October to mid-November when many tourists go to see the geese and ducks. Wisconsin 49 on the north edge of the refuge provides excellent views of some of the 15 impoundments within the marsh where water at various levels attract a variety of birds.

Other wildlife viewing opportunities exist from Main Dike Road and the 3.2 mile "Horicon Ternpike" Auto Tour Route. At various times and on weekends in June and July, Old Marsh Road is opened for hiking and bicycling across the north end of the marsh. On foot, visitors have the choice of walking 3 loop trails that connect with the auto tour route or 2 new loop trails in the Bud Cook Hiking Area on the east side of the refuge. The new hiking area opened in early 1998 in upland prairie habitat.

Plan a visit to Horicon NWR to see for yourself that there is much more to see than just Canada geese in the nation's largest freshwater cattail marsh and one of the world's most significant wetlands.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 23 May 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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