Upper Mississippi Refuge

Establishing the wildlife refuge for the Upper Mississippi River created the template for modern conservation advocacy

2024 marks 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.

By successfully advocating for establishment of the refuge, the League also created the template for modern environmental advocacy, combining the first mass membership of an environmental organization, a professional staff, lobbying in Washington and in four states and passionate pleas for action published in the League’s magazine, Outdoor America.

The 100,000 members 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. 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 National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is an enduring example of how we can and must take action to save the nation’s waterways and ensure a future with clean water. We will need bold steps and new generations of stewardship to address a range of problems—pollution, sedimentation and invasive species to name a few. 

Use these resources below to learn more about the history of the Refuge and the challenges it faces today.

Recent Features from Outdoor America Magazine

Most recent first Title, author, source, date and link “The Izaak Walton League and Upper Mississippi Refuge,” by Stephen Fox, Outdoor America, 2023 Issue 4 [LINK] “Treasures and Tragedy of the Upper Mississippi,” by Chris Jones, Outdoor America, 2023, Issue 3 [LINK]*/

Get Involved with the Refuge

March 8 and 9, 2024: Lansing, Iowa

“A Visit from Will Dilg” program, and river film by Steven Marking

March 8, 2024, 8-11 AM - For students from De Soto and Lansing School Districts only

March 9, 2024, 2-4 PM - With live music by Jon “Hawk” Stravers and Big Blue Sky, 7 PM to close

T.J. Hunters Banquet Hall, Lansing, Iowa

April 20, 2024 to April 21, 2025

"In Common Interest: A Story of the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge"

National Mississippi River Museum, Dubuque, Iowa

This display explores the origin story of the Refuge through the unique partnerships of individuals, grassroots activism and federal policies that came together in a common interest of conserving the wetlands along the river. A passion project of conservation, together they created a refuge for both wildlife and people, which continues today. The exhibit is co-hosted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Izaak Walton League of America.

Take Action to Support Clean Waterways

You can help carry on the 100-year legacy of the Upper Mississippi Refuge. Take action today to ensure this irreplaceable treasure remains protected for future generations.

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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