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Wildlife refuge in western North Dakota earns its own merits next to well-known park

It’s a unique spot and a stark contrast from what the Theodore Roosevelt National Park has to offer to the southwest. Visitors looking for a hike around a lake with a chance to spot captivating wildlife will surely enjoy their time at the Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge.

An ice fishing trailer
An ice fishing trailer resting on Lake Ilo.
Race Archibald / The Dickinson Press
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KILLDEER, N.D. — Most commonly known for the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, the western edge of North Dakota has more to offer in the form of Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge.

Located in Dunn County, right outside of Killdeer, Lake Ilo sits west of the Missouri River and is accompanied by over 4,000 acres of land. Including the wetlands surrounding the lake, the refuge is home to over 200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish combined. It is one of the 33 wildlife refuges in the state.

Surrounding the lake are three trails where visitors can take in the views of the lake and surrounding land and spot the unique wildlife western North Dakota has to offer.

The land isn’t short on history. It was first occupied by Paleo-Indians, some of the earliest known settlers in North America, about 13,000 to 25,000 years ago. They had to deal with the rapidly changing environment post-Ice Age.

Lake Ilo entrance
The entrance to the Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge in Dunn County.
Race Archibald / The Dickinson Press

Plant and animal life was vastly different than it is today as they looked to survive. These groups traveled frequently across the region, hunting big game animals such as mammoths, bison and beavers, which at the time grew as large as today's black bears.

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Some of their stone artifacts remains have been found on the refuge, as well as other nearby regions. These tools have taught scientists and archaeologists in present day what the lifestyle of the Paleo-Indians was like in the form of their craftsmanship.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel were given more access to the land in 1989 to further explore the area and to learn more about Native American life from years ago.

READ MORE FISHING COVERAGE IN NORTHLAND OUTDOORS:

The lake itself was formed from a dam constructed in 1936 near Spring and Murphy Creek. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1939 which made Lake Ilo a habitat for migrating birds and other wildlife.

The dam's condition deteriorated in the 1980s and further construction was required. It caused the lake to be lowered by 7 feet.

Some of the common wildlife found on the refuge consist of white-tailed deer, northern pintails, great blue herons and sandpipers.

Of course during the winter, activities and wildlife are limited. The bitter cold temperatures and drifting snow make it a relatively quiet place. The one activity that remains, however, is ice fishing. Portions of Lake Ilo are open to those who wish to continue the popular summer activity.

The Northern Pike, the state fish of North Dakota, can be found in these waters. Known at times for their aggressiveness, these fish live in the weedy shallow waters, but are also found in colder, clear waters. Other fish found in the lake are yellow perch and walleye.

Shoreline fishing is allowed year-round, and once the ice melts, boats are permitted on the lake from May 1 through Sept. 30.

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It’s a unique spot and a stark contrast from what the Theodore Roosevelt National Park has to offer to the southwest. Visitors looking for a hike around a lake with a chance to spot captivating wildlife will surely enjoy their time at the Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge.

Race Archibald is a Green Bay, Wisconsin native and graduate of Eastern Illinois University. From a young age he loved watching, competing and talking about sports — a passion that lead him to participate in nearly every sport available growing up. Swimming would be his bread and butter, and Archibald continued his athletic career at the Division I level where he earned a degree in journalism. Today he leads a team focused on providing the very best coverage of southwest North Dakota sports.
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