Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Location:

Garden County, Nebraska north of Oshkosh.

Owner/manager:

US Fish and Wildlife Service.

From the south at Interstate 80 exit 95: Go north on Highway 27 fifty-five miles to the refuge entrance. The entrance is twenty-eight miles beyond Oshkosh – this last section is narrow, largely unpaved and often covered with drifting sand or snow.

Free. No Camping. Pets on leash.


Garden County in western Nebraska has a population problem. The people population – particularly its younger members – has been in a steady decline for decades. To be more specific, the census tallies show a decline from a total population of 3472 in 1960 to 2292 in 2000. For those who can not quite make it all the way to California the bright lights of Cheyenne, Wyoming beckon from only one hundred and fifty miles to the southwest. Another population problem more pertinent to a discussion of prairie in these parts concerns the Blowout Penstemon (Penstemon haydenii). Once thought to be extinct this plant was rediscovered in 1968 and at one point the largest natural population, about half of the total, was at Crescent Lake NWR. Here the natural population of this plant has declined from 985 in 1993 to 486 in 2000 (Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge Draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan – 2002 Plan, USFWS, p22).

A ‘blowout’ in sand hills country refers to the funnel shaped depression found usually near the top of some large sand dunes caused by wind erosion and shifting sands. Some sand hills here look like miniature grass covered volcanoes with a concave blowout at the summit where the crater should be. The blowout penstemon in the wild grows almost exclusively within the disturbed sandy soil of a blowout.

There are several hundred species or subspecies of penstemon within North America – the blowout penstemon is highly unusual within its genus in that its flowers exude a strong fragrance. These flowers range in color from an opaque blue to light lavender and more rarely white. A study of the blowout penstemon’s pollinators shows that it is pollinated by a wide variety of bees and at least one dragonfly. (Pollination biology of the endangered Blowout Penstemon (Penstemon haydenii S. Wats.: Scrophulariaceae) in Nebraska. Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society, Oct-Dec 2006 by Tepedino, V J, Bowlin, W R, Griswold, T L pp 548-559). This same study also strongly suggests that this plant’s flowers do not readily set fruit or produce much seed when self-pollinated.

The blowout penstemon can occasionally be found in blowouts throughout this refuge the locations of which can vary on an annual basis. For the visitor pressed for time probably the best place to see this plant is off of a short interpretive trail from the refuge headquarters. This trail climbs through a blowout area where the blowout penstemon has been reseeded. The flowers typically bloom in late spring at about the same time as the bright purple spiderworts do.

To the east of Crescent Lake NWR is the little known and seldom visited Crescent Lake Proposed Wilderness Area. This primitive area of 24,503 acres was submitted for consideration as a wilderness area to the US Congress in 1972. Of course things move slowly in Washington DC – slower than a sleepy summer day in the sand hills. In the meantime while waiting for a decision one way or the other this large parcel of land has remained a defacto wilderness. A jeep road provides access from the western edge and a few rough trails wind about through the grassy dunes and shallow lakes. There are some vague plans to eventually reintroduce bison here.