Upper Mississippi

Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge: Established by an Unprecedented Advocacy Push by the Izaak Walton League of America

2024 will mark the 100-year anniversary for the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, which was a huge victory for the endangered wetlands along the river – and for the Izaak Walton League, the young conservation group that successfully pushed to establish the refuge.

Creating the refuge also established the template for modern environmental advocacy, combining the first mass membership of any environmental organization, a professional staff, lobbying in Washington and in four states, and incorporating passionate pleas for action published in the League’s monthly magazine, Outdoor America.

The League’s 100,000 members in 1924 provided unprecedented grassroots power that helped achieve buy-in and approval from Congress, the White House and from policymakers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.

The protection afforded by the refuge prevented private developers from converting the wetlands to agriculture and other uses. While the Upper Mississippi River is not without challenges today, the refuge still serves as an oasis for fish and wildlife and remains a critical part of the Mississippi flyway for migrating birds.

The Upper Mississippi River is home to 50 species of mammals, 45 species of reptiles and amphibians, 37 species of mussels, and 241 species of fish. It's also home to millions of Americans who depend on a healthy river for jobs, drinking water, outdoor recreation, and more.

Rivers are naturally dynamic. They change across seasons and years in flow, depth, and content, and the animals and plants that live there change with them.

That natural flow has been drastically altered on the Upper Mississippi, not just by impounding the river behind a series of dams but also through land development (primarily for agriculture), urban pollution, and agricultural runoff.

The problems created by these changes include:

  • Sedimentation: Eroded soils fill the pools behind dams and eliminate backwaters and side channels that are vital for fish, wildlife, and outdoor recreation.
  • Disconnected Floodplains: Levees isolate rivers from large segments of their floodplain and limit forest diversity.
  • Hydrological Changes: Dams alter water levels and annual pulses in ways that decrease biodiversity.
  • Pollution: Excess nutrients in agriculture runoff, primarily fertilizers and pesticides, damage water quality, as does urban runoff.

The League is working with our members and partners across the Upper Mississippi region to restore this vital resource while promoting sustainable agriculture and the development of farm conservation programs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You can learn more by watching the videos on this page.

More about the Mississippi River

For more information, see these resources:

Videos from the Izaak Walton League

Click the icon at the top right of the player to see all our videos about the Mississippi River.

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