Establishing the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in 1938 was the first step of many to restore the area back to its historic expanse of marshes—an area thriving with wildlife, once used by indigenous people for hunting and fishing. The marshes were drained as a result of dam and canal construction in the early 1900s, and area wildlife virtually went the way of the water—gone. But, with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a series of constructed dikes began to hold water and wildlife returned.
Today, Montezuma NWR continues to work toward restoring the historic Montezuma marshes, grasslands, shrublands, and forests. As part of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex—a partnership between the USFWS, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Audubon NY, Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy, and Friends of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex—the Refuge acquires land through deed or easement and restores it to provide critical habitat to migratory birds and other wildlife.
Designated as an Audubon Important Bird Area, the refuge provides critical migration and nesting habitat for waterfowl, marsh birds, shorebirds, raptors, warblers, woodpeckers and more! Montezuma was the first site in New York State for a bald eagle restoration program in the mid- to late-1970s, reintroducing more than 20 bald eagles back into the wild. Today, the refuge boasts several active bald eagles nests and many people visit just to see our nation’s symbol in its natural habitat!
Amid the clamor of thousands of birds, huge flocks of migrating waterfowl alight on freshwater marshes while bald eagles soar overhead. Sweeping vistas of expansive wetlands, interspersed with cattail-stands and forest, invite a closer look at areas teeming with a diversity of migratory birds and other wildlife. These are some of the images that reward and inspire visitors of Montezuma NWR. Nestled in the heart of New York State’s pastoral Finger Lakes Region, the refuge is an essential link in an international network of wetlands and conservation lands. The refuge belongs to a coalition of partners which make up the Montezuma Wetlands Complex, part of what once was historically a 50,000-acre swamp and marshland where the sky was often “black with ducks.” Through the collaboration of current and newly forged partnerships, the refuge continues to promote wise and responsible use, showcase resource stewardship, and demonstrate that wetland restoration management practices apply on a landscape level to benefit both wildlife and people.
Visitors of all ages and abilities feel welcome at the refuge and enjoy spectacular wildlife viewing opportunities. The refuge continues to be an important component of the local economy and community, and provides a full complement of quality wildlife-dependent recreation, education and interpretation programs, and other public uses. We work closely with our friends, local citizens, and partners to enhance and improve nature-based tourism through community outreach, education, and advocacy.
We hope all refuge visitors from everywhere continue to value Montezuma NWR for enhancing their quality of life. Within the National Wildlife Refuge System, Montezuma NWR is treasured for conserving wetlands and wildlife and providing inspirational outdoor experiences for present and future generations of Americans.
Each unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System is established to serve a statutory purpose that targets the conservation of native species dependent on its lands and waters. All activities on those acres are reviewed for compatibility with this statutory purpose.
The Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge was established by Executive Order 7971 on September 12, 1938 “...as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife...” Montezuma NWR has acquired lands under the authority of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act (16 U.S.C. 715-715r), as amended, “...for use as an inviolate sanctuary, or for any other management purpose, for migratory birds.”
Since the refuge was established in 1938, the Service has acquired interests in additional lands through a variety of acquisition methods, including fee title acquisition and conservation easements.
During the last ice age a glacier plowed slowly southward up the valley of the old Cayuga River. Then, as the glacier slowly melted back, it impounded a vast system of lakes along its southern boundary. An expanse of marshes formed through which the Seneca and Clyde Rivers meandered at the north end of Cayuga Lake. The historic Montezuma Marshes once extended north for 12 miles, and were up to 8 miles wide. They were one of the most productive marsh systems in North America.
Archeological evidence indicates the earliest known human inhabitants in this area were Algonquin people. After the Algonquin disappeared, Cayuga of the Iroquois tribe occupied the land. Records of the Jesuit missionaries among the Cayuga mention that, "the sunlight over the marshes was actually shut off by the clouds of ducks and geese, and the woods abounded with deer".
Dr. Peter Clark first used the name “Montezuma” in 1806. Dr. Clark, a physician from New York City, came to the area because of his interest in the salt deposits, which were recently discovered underneath the lakes and marshes. He built a large, by 1808 standards, 12-room house atop a drumlin, with a commanding view of the surrounding vast marshes. Dr. Clark, apparently a cosmopolitan traveler for that era, compared his hilltop home with the palace of the Aztec Emperor Montezuma in Mexico City. His home, the marshes, the village, and eventually the refuge, neighboring winder, and nearby state land all acquired the name.
Until the 19th century, there were no drastic changes in the marshes. With the development of the Erie Canal, it was inevitable that feeder canals from Seneca and Cayuga Lakes would in time link these lakes with the main line. With canal construction, there arose the possibility of draining the marshes. As early as April 5, 1824, an act was passed relative to the draining of the Cayuga Marshes.
Work on the canal system began in 1826. A connecting canal completed in 1828 let boats pass from Geneva to the Erie Canal at Montezuma. The Erie Canal did not greatly affect the marshes because there was no dam at the north end of Cayuga Lake, and the Seneca River still flowed directly from the lake into the marshes.
The latter part of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th was the golden era of waterfowl hunting on the marshes. A great variety of species were taken, but American black duck and northern pintail were among the most common; mallard, wood duck, widgeon and teal were also often found in the hunter's bag. Among diving ducks, redhead, scaup, and canvasback were most common. Canada geese were seldom shot on the marshes although large flocks were seen passing overhead.
This type of hunting could not last forever. With unregulated hunting and a nationwide loss of habitat, the continental populations of waterfowl began to dwindle. Shortly thereafter the daily bag limit came into being.
The golden era of waterfowling came to an abrupt end in central New York State in 1910 by the construction of the Seneca and Cayuga extensions (Cayuga-Seneca Barge Canal) of the New York State Barge Canal (now New York Canal System). A lock was built at the north end of Cayuga Lake and a dam was constructed at the outlet of the lake. This effectively changed the hydrology (how water behaves over the land) of the area and the waters drained from the marshes. The meandering rivers were straightened and deepened, thereby creating additional drainage-ways.
In 1937 the Bureau of Biological Survey, which later became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, purchased 6,432 acres of the former marsh. Montezuma Migratory Bird Refuge (now Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge) was established in 1938 to provide resting, nesting, and feeding habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) constructed a series of low dikes to hold water and restore part of the marsh habitat that had once existed. The work progressed slowly; the first refuge manager (Merton Radway 1938-49) faced breakdowns of machinery and a loss of labor. Spring floods threatened the newly constructed dikes. However, by 1943, he had great satisfaction in reporting that the newly created pool had filled and significant numbers of waterfowl where using the refuge. The Main Pool was created first, followed by Tschache Pool in 1944. With the exception of May's Point Pool, the other, smaller pools were created after 1954.
Today, Montezuma continues to expand as part of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex. Through this partnership, 50,000 acres was designated for land acquisition by either the refuge or the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in order to continue restoration of the historic marshes. Land is acquired from willing sellers and restored to native wildlife habitat.