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J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge

Site Facts

Country, State, Province/Region:

North Dakota, USA

Relative Location:

Along the Souris River, Bottineau and McHenry Counties, Prairie Pothole Region; Northern Mixed-Grass Prairie Physiographic Area


100°40’W; 48°30’N



Basis for Designation:

Supports more than 20,000 shorebirds annually.


58,693 acres (23,752 hectares)


March 2001

Site Owner/Steward:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (federal)

Site Partners:

North Dakota Fish and Game Department, Ducks Unlimited, Inc., North Dakota Wetland Trust, Pierce County Soil Conservation District, North McHenry County Conservation District, South McHenry Soil Conservation District, Renville County Conservation District, Rolette County Soil Conservation District, Turtle Mountain Soil Conservation District, Kersten Construction, Monsanto, Bottineau County Wildlife Club, NDSU-Bottineau Wildlife Department, The Nature Conservancy, Ruffed Grouse Society, Boy Scouts, several private landowners and volunteers

Human Population within 100 km:

Approximately 50,000


J. Clark Salyer NWR


About Us

The J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge was first established as the Lower Souris National Wildlife Refuge in September 1935, and officially changed to its current name in September 1967. The primary habitat management goal is to preserve, restore, and enhance Souris River Basin habitats, which include prairie wetlands, riparian lands, and uplands. The 58,700-acre refuge in North Dakota extends 45 miles south from the Canadian (Manitoba) border. The surrounding area has an extremely flat topography and a high density of wetlands—270 or more per square mile in some areas—from having been the lake bottom of Glacial Lake Souris some 7,000-10,000 years ago. The refuge is part of the five-county, 308,000-acre Souris River Basin National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex.

The refuge is located within a northern mixed-grass prairie landscape, in the Souris River flood plain, with the following habitat composition:

Freshwater Wetlands - 26,000 acres
Riparian and Meadow - 8,042 acres
Prairie Parkland (mix of prairie and woodland) - 9,579 acres
Sandhills Prairie - 2,802 acres
Drift Prairie (native grassland on loam soils) - 4,420 acres
Previously farmed areas reseeded to grasses and forbs - 7,675 acres

Adjacent lands are composed of cropland (small grains and oilseed crops), Conservation Reserve Program grasslands, and native rangeland.

The semi-arid to sub-humid continental climate means long, cold winters (lows ranging from -1 to -5°F), moderately warm summers (highs in the low 80s °F), and rapidly changing weather patterns. Annual snowfall ranges from 30 to 40 inches; annual precipitation from 16.7 to 17.5 inches, with 80% occurring between April and September.

Glaciated “prairie potholes” are one of the most obvious features on the landscape. These extremely productive wetland basins have a range of water depths and permance, from from temporary, to seasonal, to semi-permanent, and lake-like. The Souris River originates in southern Saskatchewan (Canada), flows southwest to Velva, North Dakota, and then northward to join the Assiniboine River in southern Manitoba. Some 75 miles of this river flow through the refuge.

Dikes with water-control structures have created over 23,000 acres of open water, marsh ,and wet-meadow habitat for migratory birds. Common shorebird species include:

Black-bellied Plover
Black-necked Stilt
American Avocet
Long-billed Curlew
Marbled Godwit
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Red-necked Phalarope
Snowy Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs     


Ecology & Conservation

Land Use:
Settlement of the area by Europeans began during the late 1800s and during the next 40 years significant prairie and wetland resources were plowed and drained for agricultural production. The J. Clark Salyer Refuge is dedicated to the maintenance of habitats and wildlife populations representative of the area prior to such settlement. The refuge receives approximately 15,000 visits annually. Up to 40% of the visits are for nature interpretation, wildlife observation (May - October), and environmental education; the balance primarily for hunting and fishing. During the past 10 years there has been a steady increase in birding at the refuge, and it is now among the primary stops for birders in or visiting North Dakota.

Current Threats:
The reconstruction of two dams in the Upper Souris River Basin in Saskatchewan and the completion of a flood-control project to protect Minot, ND, have altered the hydrology and hydroperiod of the historicly free-flowing river system. Peak spring river flows (March-April) are now reduced in volume and extended in duration (late June). The ability to drawdown riverine wetlands, a critical process for maintaining long-term wetland productivity, is also reduced.

The refuge is federally protected, but continued conversion of grasslands/wetlands for agricultural production adjacent to its borders poses a threat to the water resources within. Nonpoint-source pollution and sedimentation from adjacent agriculture lands are a continuing concern for water quality throughout the North Dakota portion of the Souris River Basin. 

Management and Research Activities:
The refuge completed its 15-year Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) in 2007. Managers followed specific criteria and objectives to identify areas of highest priority for restoration, akin to a 'triage' approach. Specifically, they seek to restore those ecological processes that will best sustain the long-term productivity of wetland habitats and, in turn, the diverse plant and wildlife communities representative of the Northern Great Plains region. Watershed-level efforts will aim to reduce sedimentation and nonpoint-source pollution to benefit riverine marshes.

Drawdowns of water are likely to be more frequent under the CCP's new management approach than in the past, to the benefit of shorebirds. However, per the CCP's triage approach, no additional monitoring is planned for estimating shorebird populations or their response to wetland management. Unpredictable shorebird use in the Prairie Pothole Region combined with the vast and complex configuration of the refuge's marsh units requires far more financial and human resources than are available for gathering meaningful population data.


Special Information

Recreational use of the refuge by local communities include hunting, fishing, and wildlife observation--particularly birding.  Groups such as local schools and colleges, scouts, birding clubs, elder hostels, Bottineau County Wildlife Club, North Dakota Wildlife Federation Youth Camp, church groups, and teacher education classes often hold their activities at the refuge.

International Migratory Bird Day celebrations, National Wildlife Refuge Week activities, and waterfowl banding are regular events at the site. Motels and many other travel-support services benefit from the public's use of the refuge, and interest is growing in local communities to promote birding and eco-tourism at the refuge and surrounding areas.

The site and surrounding landscape have benefited from habitat protection, restoration, and enhancement projects funded by several North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grants.



J. Clark Salyer NWR
681 Salyer Road
Upham, ND 58789
(701) 768-2548

Additional Resources

J. Clark Salyer NWR’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP)

Berkey, G. and Martin, R. 1993. Souris loop birds. United States Fish and Wildlife Service pamphlet, J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota.

Bethke, R.W. and Nudds, T.D. 1995. “Effects of climate and land use on duck abundance in Canadian prairie-parklands.” Ecological Applications, 5: 588-600.

Boyd, D. 1999. “Conserving Prairie Pit-Stops.” Pp 18-20 in K.H. Grey, editor. Conservation Sciences. Manomet, Inc., Spring 1999.

Brown, S., Hickey, C., and Harrington, B. (eds). 2000. The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan. Manoment Center for Conservation Sciences, Manomet, MA.

Bryce, S., et al. 1998. Ecoregions of North Dakota and South Dakota. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Home Page.

Fitzgerald, J.A., Pashley, D.N., and Pardo, B. (eds). 1999. Partners in Flight. Draft bird conservation plan for the northern mixed-grass prairie. 53 pp.

Pashley, D.N., et al. 1999. Partners in Flight. Conservation of land birds of the United States. American Bird Conservancy. 92 pp.

Skagen, S.K., et al. 1999. “Biogeological profiles of shorebird migration in midcontinental North America.” Biological Science Report USGS/BRD/BSR-2000-0003. U.S. Government Printing Office, Denver, CO. 167 pp.