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Wildlife refuge commemorates 75th anniversary

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Courtesy Photo In this undated photo, the sun sets over Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge near Dunn Center.

DUNN CENTER — Built around one of western North Dakota’s first major lakes, a storied wildlife refuge is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

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In 75 years, 227 bird, 36 mammal, six reptile, three amphibian and 11 fish species have been documented at the Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge, visitor services manager Jackie Jacobson said.

And more visitors than ever are coming to Lake Ilo, about one mile west of Dunn Center, said manager Todd Gallion.

Bakken oil boom traffic has caused rule enforcement issues, but the 4,000-acre refuge still represents the spirit of “good, old western North Dakota,” Gallion said.

But, these represent good problems for the refuge, which closed for several years in the early 2000s because of budget issues.

Jacobson described the refuge as an increasingly popular oasis for wildlife and a quiet place for local families to visit.

In the early 1930s, people in Dunn County wanted to create a lake on the prairie that would allow recreational opportunities for community members, Jacobson said.

During 1936 and 1937, Works Progress Administration workers constructed a dam near the confluence of Spring and Murphy Creeks, funded by the federal government during the Great Depression, she said. The resulting body of water was dubbed Lake Ilo.

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing the lake and its surrounding area as a wildlife refuge, specifically as a breeding ground for migratory birds.

Until the mid-1950s, the lake and its public park areas were major recreational attractions for the area. In 1955, Lake Sakakawea overtook Lake Ilo in popularity, Jacobson said.

Crews drained the lake in 1989 to build a concrete dam, but discovered archaeological artifacts spanning centuries.

North Dakota State University researchers excavated 13 pre-historical Native American living sites on the lake bed throughout the 1990s, Gallion said.

Buried campsites, workshops and flint quarries produced tens of thousands of artifacts documenting how Folsom Paleoindian adapted to changing climates, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Artifacts spanned more than 10,000 years of constant settlements.

Lake Ilo measures about 1,240 acres, and hosts bluegill, northern pike, yellow perch and other species for fishing.

Other visitors are invited to check out daytime facilities at the north shore of the lake, Gallion said. A one-mile interpretive trail begins at the park, allowing visitors to observe wildlife and take photos, Jacobson said.

To commemorate its 75th anniversary, the refuge will host a kid’s fishing day at Lake Ilo Park on Saturday, June 7. Participants are asked to arrive at 9:30 a.m. for registration.

A limited number of rods and reels will be provided to children, Gallion said, but participants are encouraged to bring their own.

A cookout and prize drawings will occur starting at noon. Call 701-548-8110 or 701-442-5474, extension 117 for more information.