Big Muddy National Fish & Wildlife Refuge

By Dennis Bresnahan

The Missouri River forms the northwest border of the state of Missouri. It also cuts across the state from the western border in Kansas City to the eastern border in St. Louis.

It is along this section of the Missouri River where you find the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, which is part of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which itself is a unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System.  

The Big Muddy refuge consists of 17 units where you can explore the great outdoors and the diversity of wildlife with hiking trails. observation decks, and hunting and fishing opportunities.

The historic Missouri River is nicknamed the “Big Muddy” because of its murky, sediment-filled waters. The river’s ability to carve through floodplains and create side channels and wetlands has sustained wildlife since the retreat of the glaciers thousands of years ago.

After the journey of Lewis and Clark in the early 1800’s, drastic changes began to occur on the Missouri River. Over the next century hundreds of steamships sank in the river and efforts began to control it.

By the 1950’s the Missouri River had been channelized from Sioux City, Iowa, to Saint Louis and by the 1980’s over 700 miles of the river had been channelized.  

This channelization drastically affected fish and wildlife by separating the river from the floodplain.

This has reduced the risks to riverboats and river travel but has also damaged crucial wildlife habitat. Further damage by major flooding, including the great flood of 1992, is why the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge was established in September of 1994.

The refuge exists for the development, advancement, management, conservation, and protection of fish and wildlife resources for the continuing benefit of the American people.  

The refuge currently manages approximately 20,000 acres mostly located along the final 367 miles of the Missouri River.

A lot of this refuge is flooded for parts of the year because of its proximity to the river, but this is a good thing.  The floods help restore and revive the land in the flood plain which benefits wildlife.

All of the refuge’s 17 units are open to the public and many have at least one parking facility and informational kiosk. Some units have trails, scour lakes for fishing, and all are open to hunting and wildlife viewing.

Camping and unauthorized overnight use of the refuge is prohibited. But sandbars of the Missouri River are managed by the state and camping is usually allowed on them.

Most of the units that make up the refuge run along the Missouri River from Kansas City to St. Louis, so there is probably a refuge unit close to a majority of residents living in Missouri.  

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