On this date in 1902 in Higginsville, Missouri, John Clark Salyer II, the father of the National Wildlife Refuge System, was born. To those who knew him growing up, this title makes sense. As a teenager, he got permission to leave school early and run his trapline in the marshes. He would catch foxes, raccoons, skunks, and opossums, which earned him up to $750 a year. He used that money to pay for his college degree.
He became a school teacher in Kansas and then a professor of biology. In 1933 he accepted a position for the Iowa Fish and Game Commission. In June the following year, Jay “Ding” Darling, who was in charge of the Bureau of Biological Survey, asked Salyer to head the Wildlife Refuge Program, but Salyer was hesitant. However, he took a leave to develop a waterfowl management program based on Aldo Leopold’s principles of wildlife management, which focused on habitat preservation. That experience led Salyer to accept a permanent position with the Bureau in December.
He was afraid to fly, so the bureau provided him with a car. In six weeks, he covered 18,000 miles and made plans for 600,000 acres of refuge lands.
Salyer would often drive hundreds of miles to visit refuge managers and stay the night or simply have a meal before taking off to another refuge. His hard work paid off. When he took the job in 1934, the refuge system was 1.5 million acres. When he retired in 1961, refuge lands covered nearly 29 million acres.
Salyer was remarkably sharp and remained active after retirement as an advisor, recalling specific details about refuges even after going blind. He kept it up until his death on his birthday in 1966. That same year, the Fish and Wildlife Service renamed the Lower Souris Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota to honor him.
The J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge is the largest refuge in North Dakota. Spanning 58,700 acres, over 270 species of birds have been seen there with 160 species nesting in the refuge. It is one of ten refuges featured in the Smithsonian’s centennial exhibit in 2003-2004; and the North Dakota Natural Heritage Inventory lists it as one of two intact ecological landscapes in North Dakota. So, if you ever find yourself on the refuge, remember that its name honors the very man who made it possible.
Dakota Datebook written by Lucid Thomas