Coteau Prairie WPA
Lostwood NWR

Location and owner/manager:

Mountrail County and Burke County, North Dakota north of Stanley. US Fish and Wildlife Service.

From the south at Interstate 94 exit 61 (Dickinson): Go north on Highway 22 eighty-four miles to Highway 23 and turn right, Go eighteen miles east on Highway 23 to Highway 8 and turn left. Go forty-seven miles north to the refuge entrance on the left. Note that going north on Highway 8 the intersecting streets increment with each mile – Stanley is at 62nd Street and the refuge entrance is the equivalent of 84th Street. As another reference the refuge entrance is about six miles north of where Highway 50 branches west from Highway 8. Free. No camping. Pets on leash. Horseback riding and upland game hunting permitted.

Coteau Prairie WPA is northeast of the intersection of Highway 8 and 75th Street between mile markers 169 and 170 on Highway 8. For reference it is about eight miles south of the entrance to Lostwood NWR. (Prospective visitors should check with the Lostwood NWR headquarters for current access rules).

In preparing to talk a bit here about Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge and Coteau Prairie WPA it has occurred to me that most Americans are probably more familiar with the north slope of Alaska than northwest North Dakota and also may not know what the word Coteau refers to. Let me start out by saying that this general area is a pretty little corner of the world with many hills and lakes that is often blessed with a balmy summer and long lingering fall. Northwest North Dakota does get dark in December and brutally cold in January but of course you can say that about many places – only this place more so. I will now attempt in a few words to acquaint you with the landscape here and to disambiguate – as they are fond of saying in the online encyclopedias – the Coteau.

Actually there are several similar sounding words to Coteau to confuse a visitor to the Great Plains so let us get those out of the way first: Chouteau was the surname of a fur trading family based in St Louis, Choctaw is an Indian tribe now in Oklahoma – and Toto is from Kansas. The Coteau of the Dakotas is a landscape of undulating glacial debris to the east and then north of the Missouri River as that great river swings upstream to the west. The hills here were formed from what the glaciers scrapped bare elsewhere with some wind blown loess added as the latest glacial advance receded. The lakes often mark depressions where large submerged blocks of stagnant ice where buried as the line of glacial ice retreated and then temporarily advanced many times.

To further confuse the situation there are two large prairies with the name Coteau Prairie Waterfowl Production Area that are several hundred miles apart. North Dakota has a Coteau Prairie WPA – one of the largest native grasslands in North America - a few miles southeast of Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge. There is also a Coteau Prairie WPA in northeast South Dakota.

The primary purpose of a waterfowl production area as the name implies is to produce waterfowl. Some WPAs are owned outright by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and some are simply private lands under seasonal conservation easement. Access rules vary but there really is not much demand from the general public to visit WPAs.

The Coteau Prairie WPA in North Dakota is largely a Little Bluestem dominated mixed grass prairie with some wetlands. There are no trails or formal parking areas. Beyond appreciating Coteau Prairie WPA for what it is the prospective visitor is likely to find the nearby Lostwood NWR to be a more satisfying visit.

Lostwood NWR and its surrounding wetland management district comprise the largest publicly accessible example of a prairie pothole complex within the United States. There are other USFWS managed refuges within the Dakotas of a similar size but many of these represent strips of land along rivers and lakes rather than a large contiguous area. Where there is a similar large prairie pothole complex such as at Chase Lake and Lake Tewaukon it consists largely of conservation easements and can not be visited by the public except for a small core area.

The northwest corner of this refuge has been a designated wilderness area since 1975 and was preserved specifically as an example of the Missouri Coteau. This area was homesteaded comparatively late and the first biological survey (by Remington Kellogg who focused mostly on animals) was not initiated until 1910. Although legally a wilderness Lostwood Wilderness Area was partially farmed for a few decades. It is one of only two wilderness areas protecting prairie within North Dakota – the other surrounding Chase Lake may be more pristine but is largely off limits to the public because of its nesting colony of American White Pelicans.

Overall this refuge may be as good a place as any within the United States to see a wide variety of birds that nest in grassland. Common grassland birds here include Upland Sandpiper, Bobolink, Sprague's Pipit and Baird's, Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrows. Among these Baird's Sparrow and Sprague’s Pipit may be the highlights – they are endemic to the northern great plains and this refuge in particular meets their habitat requirements. Baird’s Sparrow (Ammodramus bairdii) was the last bird discovered by Audubon who at the time in 1843 was on a buffalo hunt. Audubon noted in his Birds of America that Baird’s Sparrow was confined to ‘close and rather long grass’ and that one of the hunters ‘nearly trod on some of them, before the birds would take to wing, and they almost instantaneously re-alighted within a few steps, and then ran like mice through the grass.’ Less common is LeConte's Sparrow which sometimes nests in thicker stands of grass near wetlands. Sharp-tailed Grouse are also abundant.

The only bird here that is legally a ‘threatened’ species is the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) which does not nest within grassland but along the shoreline of alkaline lakes. There is suitable habitat here for supporting perhaps a couple dozen Piping Plover nesting pairs. Elsewhere these birds are threatened by the seemingly innocent activity of large numbers of people walking along the beach near populated areas. In this part of North Dakota there are few beachcombers – here raccoons and foxes are the principal threats to Piping Plovers.

Waterfowl at Lostwood NWR include Giant Canada Geese and Lesser Snow Geese. Both can be a numerous nuisance here as they frequently are in many urban parks within the United States. Giant Canada Geese (Branta canadensis maxima) at one time were considered to be extinct. They are the largest of their species but they have comparatively greater difficulty taking wing which in a bird can be a serious shortcoming. In particular they are less successful at defending their eggs or goslings from avian predators such as gulls than the somewhat smaller geese which have the right combination of mass and agility to take flight and chase their tormentors away. One might also speculate that the slow moving fatty bulk of a Giant Canada Goose often proved a tempting target for the guns of hungry settlers during the 19th century.

Lostwood NWR has a seven mile out-and-back auto tour route that begins at its main northeast entrance. Stop number 2 is near the southeast corner of the wilderness area and also has another trail that loops into the western non-wilderness portion of the refuge. Stops number 9 and 11 have viewing areas for observing sharp-tailed grouse and piping plovers respectively in season.

If you plan to visit this area keep in mind that supplies and services are few and far between and there is a surprising lack of camping in North Dakota beyond the vicinity of the Missouri River.