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J. Clark Salyer II


In 1934, a USDA report read, “Serious drought conditions have arisen periodically throughout recorded history, always doubtless working hardship on waterfowl. But never, so far as is known, have there been so many destructive conditions and agencies at work at once upon a depleted waterfowl supply as during the past 5 years.”

Yesterday, we talked about Ding Darling, who founded the National Wildlife Federation. He began his campaign to conserve waterfowl as head of the National Biological Survey in 1934. At his side was ornithologist J. Clark Salyer II, known as the Father of National Wildlife Refuges.

Salyer wrote, “This nesting ground now lies as a desert so far as its millions of waterfowl are concerned. The sturdy human stock of the prairie lands will endure. The herds will grow fat again. But can the earlier inhabitants, the winged millions, reestablish themselves in all their early abundance?”

The crisis led to ideas on how to protect migratory birds from extinction. It also led to flaring tempers. Out-of-state commercial hunters were enjoying few restrictions on mass kills; farmers were baiting ducks with corn and live decoys; others, guilty of wanton waste, left piles of birds to rot in the sun. Hunting opponents saw guns as the problem, but hunters saw limitations as unfair.

Darling and Salyer saw something else – in addition to no rain, farmers were draining fields for cropland. Nesting habitat had disappeared at an alarming rate. The limited refuge program that already existed lacked funding and manpower. A management program based on the needs of migratory birds was called for, but this had never been attempted on a national scale before.

Thirty-two year-old Salyer wanted to get out in the field to take stock, but he was afraid to fly. The government issued him an Oldsmobile, instead, and in the next month and a half, Salyer drove an estimated 18,000 miles as he visited refuges in the 18 states most effected by the drought. He often stayed with the refuge managers and made a point of ask their wives’ opinions, as well.

Focusing on rivers, prairie potholes and marginal farmland, Salyer drew up plans to add 600,000 acres of land to the refuge system, and by December, he was the country’s first Chief of Refuge Management. On September 4th, 1935, large areas in the north central part of ND were established as Upper and Lower Souris National Wildlife Refuges. A dam was built in the upper Souris to create Lake Darling, which could provide water to downstream wetlands when needed.

The Souris project became a rousing success encompassing almost 59,000 acres – the largest and most diverse refuge in ND. In 1967, the Lower Souris, with headquarters in Upham, was renamed J. Clark Salyer II National Wildlife Refuge – it was one of his favorite refuges. More than 250 bird species make use of it, with many staying throughout the summer. Approximately 20,000 ducks are produced there each year, and upwards to 800,000 additional ducks and geese use it during fall migration.

In 2001, the American Bird Conservancy named the Salyer Refuge one of the top 100 “Globally Important Bird Areas.” J. Clark Salyer II is also one of only 10 refuges featured in a centennial exhibit of the refuge system at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Under Salyer’s direction, the Nation’s wildlife refuge system has grown from 1.5 million acres in 1934 to nearly 29 million acres upon his retirement in 1961.

Source: Bob Howard, North Dakota Outdoors, March 2003, p. 16; Flyways: Pioneering Waterfowl Management in North America, U.S. Dept. of Interior Fish and Wildlife Service

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm