10 Cities Campaign: Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge

Video produced for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service by Tandem Stills + Motion in collaboration with The National Wildlife Refuge Association. 


Refuge of Revitalization

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Photo by Michigan Philharmonic

Ask people what comes to mind when they think of Detroit and you get answers like ‘concrete,‘cars,’ and ‘vacant buildings’. Although the city has gone through a revitalization as of late, bringing with it good food and a nightlife, the last thing people think about is nature. So it might come as a surprise that just 20 miles south of Detroit in Wayne and Monroe Counties is home to the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, which has undergone a different kind of revitalization in recent years.

Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Sign. Photo by Tina Shaw / USFWS.

According to recently retired Refuge Manager John Hartig, “the Detroit River is no longer just a polluted river in the rust belt”, it’s now home to the country’s first international wildlife refuge. Detroit didn’t always have the best record for conservation. With the river heavily polluted from the automobile and steel industries in the 60s and 70s, whole populations of fish and birds disappeared. And if you were lucky enough to catch a fish, it was said to have tasted like oil.

But dramatic improvements have returned bald eagles, peregrine falcons, ospreys, lake sturgeon, walleye, and even beaver. Hartig says, “it’s one of the most remarkable ecological recovery stories of North America.”

Established in 2001, the Detroit River IWR includes islands, coastal wetlands, marshes, shoals, and waterfront land along 48 miles of the Detroit River and Lake Erie with over 6,000 acres on the United States side and 12,000 acres on the Canadian side, making it an international wildlife refuge. This partnership between the U.S. and Canada is truly unique: the Detroit River IWR is the only international wildlife refuge in North America and symbolizes the importance of our two countries’ mutually shared vision of protecting wildlife.

Dingell celebrating with partners at the groundbreaking of the Detroit River IWR Visitor Center. Photo by Tina Shaw/USFWS.
Congresswoman Dingell, FMR Congressman Dingell, Former USFWS Director Dan Ashe celebrating at the groundbreaking of the Visitor Center Photo by Tina Shaw/USFWS.

At only 18,000 shared acres, the Detroit River IWR is small compared to the millions of acres of land in, say, Alaska, but what makes the Detroit River IWR even more unique is its proximity to the more than 4.6 million people living in the Detroit metropolitan area, making it Michigan’s largest urban area.

Much of the refuge is closed to the public because of a lack of staff and facilities, something the Refuge hopes to remedy with the Refuge Gateway, a free visitor center that will include classrooms, connections to hiking trails, a 700 foot long dock and fishing pier, and a canoe/kayak launch to open sometime this spring/summer.

Located south of Detroit in Trenton, the facility will need at least one hundred volunteers to operate. One of those volunteers could be you! Volunteers are a core need for Detroit River IWR and many of our refuges throughout the U.S. There are countless opportunities to gain experience in biology, habitat restoration, environmental education, visitors services, community outreach, maintenance, office administration and communications. All ages are welcome (there’s even a Youth Program) and they work with your schedule. Contact Visitor Services Manager Jody DeMeyere at 734-692-7649 for more information.

Ford Model Team Volunteers Photo by USFWS
Ford Model Team Volunteers Repairing A Fence at The Refuge Photo by USFWS

If you can’t donate your time, please consider donating money to the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance, an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the mission and purposes of the Detroit River IWR.

The Detroit River IWR and its Friends group, International Wildlife Refuge Alliance, gives back to Detroit in so many ways. The Blue Goose Bus Fund helps schools offset the cost of transporting students to and from the refuge. And the various wildlife refuge activities bring in tens of millions of dollars to Detroit and the surrounding areas; walleye fishing alone brings in approximately one million dollars a year.  

Donating time and/or money in support of the Refuge will speed its revitalization and allow more people to experience nature-oriented recreation along the Detroit River in unexpected ways.

Detroit, commonly known as “Motor City” is not just automobiles, warehouses, financial and technology industries but one of 14 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s designated priority urban wildlife refuges and a vital asset of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

This is an article by guest blogger, Kelly Dudzik a Michigan resident.


Check out Things You Should Know About Detroit International Wildlife Refuge Below!


Detroit River


NWRA’s Urban Refuge Program – Protecting our Conservation Future strives to reach beyond refuge boundaries to engage with and connect people of all ages to nature and our Refuge System.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2018/01/10-cities-campaign-detroit-river-international-wildlife-refuge/

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