October 10, 2015 marks the 110th birthday of Huron National Wildlife Refuge, the oldest refuge in the Midwest Region. This collection of eight small islands is off of the southern shores of Lake Superior, in Marquette County, Michigan.
President Theodore Roosevelt set aside this bird sanctuary as a breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife in 1905. Because of early conservation efforts like this, many bird populations that had been over-harvested by plume hunters and egg collectors in the 1800s and early 1900s, returned to healthy populations levels.
While several of our national wildlife refuges have wilderness areas, all of Huron National Wildlife Refuge is distinguished by this Congressional designation. The concept of wilderness involves more than biological integrity. Lands designated as wilderness also have an intangible sense of solitude and isolation.
Historic structures from Lighthouse Island. Photo courtesy of Seney Natural History Association.
The granite outcroppings that make up the refuge islands are billions of years old. Covered in glaciers during the last ice age, the islands would have been little more than bare rocks and thin soils when the glaciers retreated. The plants and animals inhabiting the islands have found their way there over the last 8,000 to 15,000 years.
A core aspect of wilderness is that landscapes with this designation are usually classified as untrammeled, or free of restraints and wild, usually thought of as being free of human development. That said, the islands of Huron National Wildlife Refuge offer unique contrasts between barren granite, and historic lighthouse structures which bear a distinct human footprint.
At 40 acres, Lighthouse Island is the second largest island in the refuge. This island is the only part of the refuge open to the public. In 1868, a lighthouse was built on the island to aid in navigation. By 1972, the light was automated and this eliminated the need for a lighthouse keeper. Today, the lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Most people visit the island to view these historic structures and for a scenic view of Lake Superior, the Huron Mountains and the Keweenaw Peninsula.
Huron National Wildlife Refuge is the perfect nesting ground for the herring gull, a year-round resident in the Great Lakes Region. They prefer to nest in areas surrounded by water where they are protected from predators and the rocky islands of Huron Refuge fit the bill. Today, it is one of the most common gulls in the northeastern United States, but it was almost extirpated or locally extinct in North America during the 19th century.
McIntyre Island hosts a few small bogs dotted with black spruce. These slightly acidic habitats are home to a number of plants including lowbush blueberry, Labrador tea, twinflower and other rare plants. Several species of birds are known to utilize the bogs including ruby-crowned kinglets, cedar waxwings, Tennessee warblers, white-winged crossbills and white-throated sparrows.
Some unexpected sightings in the refuge include peregrine falcons, spotted sandpipers and eastern garter snakes.
We have been protecting the wilderness character and biological integrity of these islands for more than 100 years. Whether you have a keen interest in birding, a love of Great Lakes lighthouse history or just like knowing that wild places like this exist, help wish them a happy birthday.