Located in the transition zone between Western and Eastern Washington, Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most biologically diverse areas in Washington. Its elevation and proximity to 12,276-foot Mt. Adams add to the diversity.
The refuge was established in the mid-1960s to provide habitat for migrating spring waterfowl. Thousand of ducks and Canada Geese stop over on the way north, feeding on the lush green pasture and hay, and resting on the flooded lakebed. If the refuge were being established today, biodiversity would be the reason. Ten thousand acres of land have been identified as the goal for the Refuge, which currently encompasses 6,500 acres.
Work done by the refuge to control water levels and reduce human impacts has resulted in the return of Greater Sandhill Cranes to nest on the refuge and surrounding area. Historically, they nested in the state but were last reported in 1941. In 1979, a nest was found on the refuge and in 2007 there were 23 nesting pairs that produced 12 juveniles.
The location, depth, and timing of water distribution are important to other birds, as well. Migrating Mallards, Pintail, teal, and swans need deep water for rest, food, and safety. Receding water creates mud margins utilized by Killdeer, Spotted Sandpipers, and other shorebirds. Waders, like the Great Blue Heron, work the shallow waters for young fish and invertebrates. Irrigation stimulates new plant growth, or browse, for migrating Canada Geese. A total of 165 species have been documented on the refuge.
Conboy Lake NWR, interspersed lands held by numerous private land owners with primarily ranching/ag production interests.
The term ''lake'' is a bit of a misnomer, as the area is actually a seasonal marsh. It occupies a portion of the historic Conboy and Camas Lake-bed, and is checker-boarded with adjacent private land. Native Americans used the area for summer residence and gathered food - camas in the spring, strawberries and huckleberries in the summer. The area was flooded seasonally, with some areas having permanent but shallow water. Early settlers constructed a drainage system in hopes of creating an agricultural area. Seasonal high water and a short growing season kept the area a subsistence-level ranch and farm enterprise.
The refuge includes Ponderosa and lodgepole pine forests, stands of Douglas fir, and Oregon white oak. The forests are located in the old lake bottom as well as on surrounding ridges. Upland grasslands provide a transition between the forested ridges and include bunchgrass and introduced species. Shrubs and forbs are an important part of the habitat, with bitterbrush and spirea being the dominant species. Seasonally wet meadows occupy the elevation below the grassland, and acreage varies with the amount of rainfall and snow-melt each year. Introduced reed canary-grass is dominant, although native sedges and rushes are common in less disturbed sites. Water distribution is dictated by weather, but the refuge is developing water control capabilities to enhance wetland management (permanent vs. seasonal). Cattails, bulrush, and smartweed as well as other native species dominate.