Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Idaho threatened with dismemberment

Lawsuit aims to take back majority of marsh land used to create the Refuge-

A lawsuit by landowners who helped create the Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in 1965, now threatens is dismemberment.

One of the best known features of the obscure country between the eastern edge of the Snake River Plain and the Wyoming border is Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge boundary aims to protect about 33-thousand acres. 21,000 thousand acres are the largest hardstem bulrush marsh in North America. Also inside the boundary is another 7,000 acres of sedge and rush wet meadows. The Refuge lies in broad mountain valley between the Caribou Range on the east the and Little Valley Hills on the west.

Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Eastern Idaho. Photo copyright Ralph Maughan
Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Eastern Idaho. Photo copyright Ralph Maughan

The land for the 1965 establishment of the Refuge came mostly from 13,000 acres of private land purchased and donated.  Since then another 5000 acres have been bought; so almost 15,000 acres inside the boundary are private land still.  Over the years the private landowners have often not been happy with federal management.  In addition, water rights held by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes have kept the waters of the marsh well below the optimum and the level of the once pristine marsh.  Finally, grazing activists have been unhappy with the high level of cattle grazing on the marshland, which often almost completely dries out.

Despite all this, the marsh has the largest breeding concentration of greater sandhill cranes in North America.  About 200 species of wildlife also use the Refuge all, or part of the year.  The area is pleasant, if not stunning scenery. The Caribou-Targhee National Forest just to its south and east provides much additional recreation and wildlife habitat.

The lawsuit alleges that the federal government promised the landowners  that they would build a water tight dike around the marsh. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a dike in 1972, but it didn’t work because the ground was said to have too much peat and water flowed under the dike.

Presently, Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge is beginning to create a new Comprehensive Conservation Plan.  The marsh could be made to do much more for wildlife than even the large amount currently, but this lawsuit, other lingering animosity and private water rights seem to conspire to push the future condition back more to the sorry days of the early 20th Century at the marsh rather than the hoped for culmination of wildlife protection and production.


  1. ZeeWolf Avatar

    Living in central Colorado, I often see and especially hear the cranes during their spring and fall migrations. The Monte Vista and I believe Alamosa NWR’s play host to the cranes as well.

    I have always believed that in order for wildland and wildlife conservation to proceed then the system needs to be used against itself – money talks, bullsh*t walks. What I mean is “buy it up”. I have not met many rancher or for that matter members of the general public who can turn down dollar bills. Want to protect habitat on private lands? Then buy it. I know it is easier said than done, there must be some groups out there. Any ideas?

    1. Rancher Bob Avatar
      Rancher Bob

      It’s often claimed that wildlife watchers out number hunters and spend more money than hunting groups. This would be a perfect chance for them to prove that belief. Keep in mind it also takes lots of money to manage land so raise enough money to more than cover the purchase price.

    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      It isn’t clear what really provoked this lawsuit. The failure to build the promised dikes happened a generation ago.

      The landowners wouldn’t suddenly get angry over that now and launch a suit. That might be their legal argument, but I can’t see it as their motivation for the suit at all.

      1. mikepost Avatar

        Ralph, about 18 months ago there was a big case decided that concerned “donor intent”. In that case, millions of dollars had to be returned to a donor by an education insitution due to their failure to spend the money under the conditions for which it was given. Donor intent is an issue that has snuck up on a few 501c3’s since then. Perhaps this is what struck a legal chord with the landowners.

        1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
          Ralph Maughan


          There might be something to this, although the government will be a long time paying them any money if its loses because it is broke (albeit artificially so).

          This high valley is not competitive for livestock. It is too far from market and the winters are far too for any livestock owner who uses the valley as his or her base property.

          1. alf Avatar

            “This high valley is not competitive for livestock. It is too far from market and the winters are far too for any livestock owner who uses the valley as his or her base property.”

            That’s also true of the Lemhi, Passimeroi, Big Hole, Centennial, and dozens of other valleys in ID, MT, WY, and elsewhere, but it doesn’t stop them, nor does it stop the givermint from encouraging them with essentially free grazing on federal lands and other subsidies (the only way those “fiercely independednt” — ha, ha — givermint hatin’ parasites can stay in bizniss).

      2. alf Avatar

        Color me paranoid, Ralph : My guess is that it may be just something the property rights fanatics, the tea baggers, some other professional givermint haters, or other ultra right wing kooks’s accidentally stumbled on and stirred up the in-holders — maybe with a bit of encouragement and/or financing from the Koch brothers or Dick Armey’s gang.

  2. Kayla Avatar

    Gosh, I hope it is not dismembered!!! But with how things are going these days, who knows what will happen. I have been there and I love the place. There is not hardly that much development in that valley. The road that goes from Freedom, Wyo. over to Soda Springs, Idaho and by Greys Lake is wonderful. Maybe that is the thing since Eastern Idaho is developing quite rapidly now – dismember the refuge and bring in the development. Hope Not!

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      I hope not too, Kayla.

      I doubt subdivisions would be successful, but I fear one of those awful “hunting” ranches. Idaho is already pockmarked with these festering sores of potential disease and indolent shooters.

  3. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    Also the outlet of greys lake is some of the best cutthroat waters around(or used to be) I remember walking up to it and have the water literally boil with fish when they saw me ,all cutts.

  4. Elk275 Avatar

    Jeff E

    ++I remember walking up to it and have the water literally boil with fish when they saw me ,all cutts.++

    So you are the person that this bumper sticker refers to “Fish temble at the mention of my name”


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan