The coordinates shown above are for the intersection of Hwys 57 and 20.

Nominator's Comments: I propose that we define this site by a certain line of elevation. The elevation of 1458 feet is the water level at which the Devils Lake/Stump Lake basin begins to overflow into the Sheyenne River. Defining the basin this way would be inclusive of the highest elevation that the lake can reach as well as the lowest. Within the decade ending in 2014, the lake level has risen to within five feet of spillover, despite active pumping of water. In the 1930s, the main lake was almost dry. The extreme change in elevation is about 60 feet. At it's lower levels, waters of the lake are extremely salty. With rising levels, salinity decreases which dramatically improves the fishery and no doubt influences the bird species that use the lake. The basin is attractive to colonial nesters that use either islands or cattails. However, the elevation can easily change by up to 3 feet in one year with the result that over water nesters are displaced and must locate elsewhere.

Apart from the nesting season, the basin attracts huge numbers of migrant waterfowl, gulls, shorebirds, and bald eagles. It is an important stopover for Bonaparte's Gulls in fall.  

The basin as defined would include Stump Lake, East Devils Lake, Lake Alice, etc., etc., It also includes Grahams Island. Various islands appear or disappear depending on the elevation of the lake. Although some interests in the lake would like to see the level stabilized at a relatively high elevation, the changes that occur naturally increases the overall productivity of the lake including the birdlife that it supports.

Ornithological Summary

The Devils
Lake Basin is one of the most dynamic sites for birds within the United States.
Water levels of the lake can easily vary 3 feet in a year with the result that
islands, wetlands and mudflats can disappear within a year only to be
replaced by the same habitats in other locations. The lake nearly
dried up in the 1930s, and as risen over 30 feet since 1993. As a result of
these fluctations, snapshots of the distribution and composition of
birdlife in two consecutive years can be very different.

BASIN (following based on my knowledge of the Devils Lake Basin over the last
35 years). The June 2014 issue of The Prairie Naturalist was consulted
in assigning Levels of SCP.

Horned Grebe –
SCP Level I: common migrant and may occasionally nest.

Bittern -- SCP Level I: Migrant and nester. The basin provides good habitat.

Pintail -- SCP Level II: Migrant and nester. The basin is an important area for
this species.

Canvasback --
SCP Level II: Nester and migrant. In 1980s when water levels favored large beds
of sago pondweed, west Stump Lake was an important staging area for Canvasbacks
and Tundra Swans (see Kantrud, H.A. 1986b. Western Stump Lake, a major
canvasback staging area in eastern North Dakota. Prairie Nat. 18:247-253.).

Redhead – No longer
listed as a Species of Conservation Priority. Migrant and nester. Important
staging area for drakes after the breeding season.

Lesser Scaup
-- SCP Level II: migrant and nester. Tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands stage
on Devils Lake in fall.

White Pelican -- SCP Level II: Potential nester within the basin. Important
area for nonbreeders and post-breeding dispersal.

Harrier -- SCP Level II: Migrant and nester

Hawk -- SCP Level I: Likely a very few pair around the periphery of the basin.

Bald Eagle --
SCP Level II: Started nesting in North Dakota in about 2000 and since have
spread across most of the state to nest. There are nesting records for the
Basin. Large numbers present around lake in spring and fall migrations

Kestrel -- SCP Level II: Migrant and nester, but population is in strong
decline throughout the region. Present status in the Basin is uncertain but
occasional nesting pair seems likely.

Falcon -- SCP Level III: Arctic birds present as spring and fall migrants

Grouse -- SCP Level II: Resident

Yellow Rail
-- SCP Level I: Due to its strictly nocturnal calling habits, the status
of this species is largely unknown statewide. Known to be a summer resident at
Minnewaukan Flats during the early 1980s and early studies of this species were
made by Peabody in the large coulees near Esmond around 1900.

Piping Plover
-- SCP Level II: Nesting record at Minnewaukan Flats June 12, 2008.Suitable
nesting habitat is scarce to nonexistent during this time of high water levels,
but could return when the lake elevation drops, exposing bare beaches.

Avocet -- SCP Level II: migrant and nester. Records for staging
flocks of several hundred in fall.

Willet -- SCP
Level II: Migrant and nester. Numbers of godwits, willets and upland sandpipers
likely dependent on the extent of grazing within the basin. Current high water
levels decrease the amount of suitable nesting habitat.

Sandpiper -- SCP Level II: Migrant and nester. See comment for Willet.

Godwit -- SCP Level I: Migrant and nester. See comment for Willet.

Phalarope -- SCP Level I: Migrant and nester

Gull -- SCP Level I:  Nesting colonies in
2014 were located on south side of US 2, across the highway from the townsite
of Church’s Ferry, and 2 miles east and about 4 miles south of Maza. Former
nesting colonies of many thousands on Lake Alice NWR.

Black Tern --
SCP Level I: Devils Lake Basin is an important nesting area and stopover for

Cuckoo SCP Level I: -- SCP Level I:  Now
rare across North Dakota. Likely a migrant and nester in small numbers.

Owl -- SCP Level II: Migrant and likely nester with numbers varying widely
and correlating with vole populations.

Burrowing Owl
-- SCP Level II: Potential nester, unaware of recent records.

Woodpecker -- SCP Level I: In sharp decline and present status within the Basin
is uncertain. I would expect an occasional nesting pair at farmsteads.

Shrike -- SCP Level II: Likely migrant and nester in small numbers.

Sedge Wren –
Removed from SCP in 2013.  Fairly common
migrant and nester in appropriate habitat.

Pipit -- SCP Level I: Present status uncertain but since this species has all
but disappeared from central North Dakota, its presence is unlikely until the
climate returns to drier conditions.

Sparrow -- SCP Level I: Migrant and nester in suitable habitat.

Sparrow -- SCP Level I: As this species has all but disappeared from central
North Dakota, its presence is unlikely until the climate returns to drier

Le Conte's
Sparrow -- SCP Level II: Migrant and nester in suitable habitat.

Sparrow -- SCP Level I: Migrant and nester in suitable habitat.

Longspur -- SCP Level I: Not known to be present within the Basin and the
species has mostly disappeared from eastern half of North Dakota. A few pair
are present on School Trust Lands outside the Basin, about 2 miles south of

-- SCP Level II: Singing males are present in years but it is uncertain
how often females come this far north.

Bobolink -- SCP
Level II: Migrant and nester in good numbers, sometimes using fields of small

Meadowlark -- SCP Level II: Migrant and nester.


Golden Eagle
and Prairie Falcon, both Level II SCP, are likely occasional visitors to the
basin during migration.


Species that
likely meet this criterion include: Lesser Scaup, Western Grebe, Eared Grebe,
White-faced Ibis, Ruddy Turnstone, Ring-billed Gull, Franklin's Gull,
Bonaparte's Gull, Forster's Tern, and Black Tern.


exceeding threshold during migration include Canada Goose, Snow Goose,
Lesser Scaup. Some species likely meet the criterion for 100 breeding
pairs/square mile, but documentation needed.


Species known
to nest regularly: Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret,
Black-crowned Night Heron, White-faced Ibis


Species that
would meet this criterion include: Franklins Gulls (>2500 nesting pairs),
Ring-billed Gulls (>1000 nesting pairs, currently this many on island in
Stink Lake, about 1 mile south of Church's Ferry), grebes (>300 nesting
pairs of Western Grebes, and also Eared Grebes). Other colonial waterbirds
include California Gulls and Common Terns. The following should be included
here if they meet the definition of "colonial waterbirds":
Red-necked Grebe and Forster's Tern. The basin is also an important fall
staging area for Bonaparte's Gulls whose numbers may approach or exceed 10,000.


Because of
changing water levels, sites for migrant shorebirds change. Before the flooding
of Minnewaukan Flats, the overall number of shorebirds at peak of migration
likely exceeded 100,000 in the early 1990s. Since that time, large numbers have
been seen in the vicinity of the outlet for East Devils Lake, and Lake Alice
National Wildlife Refuge and adjacent areas to the north.


The basin
attracts large numbers of Bald Eagles, especially in late Fall. A few pair nest
in the area. Northern Harrier is a prominent nesting species.

CRITERION A4i: Species that meet this criterion include Lesser Scaup, Tundra Swan, Canvasback, Ruddy Duck, Ruddy Turnstone, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Franklin's Gull. In addition, there can be no doubt that Snow Goose also meets this criterion.


Apart from Species of Conservation Priority, the Devils Lake Basin, from a statewide perspective, has very significant numbers of Western Grebes, Eared Grebes, a few Red-necked Grebes, White-faced Ibis, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Cattle Egrets. The numbers present for any and all of these could exceed 1% of the statewide population. The locations of these species in a given nesting season is highly dependent on water levels.

Conservation Issues

If left to nature, the Devils Lake Basin will always be in flux due to changing water levels in response to annual precipitation. The area has been experiencing rising water levels since 1993 because of above average rainfall in the watershed. Many believe that rising levels has been aggravated by extensive drainage of wetlands within the watershed to the north of the basin. Mitigation of rising levels is now being implemented by active pumping of waters from the lake at a combined rate of 600 cfs. Prior to 1993, when the water level was declining, active consideration was being given to transferring water from the Missouri River watershed into the Devils Lake Basin. There are commercial and recreational interests that would like to stabilize the lake within a narrow range as they see this as necessary to stabilize fishing and access to the lake. On the other hand, other interests would like to recover farm land that has been lost to the rising lake. Management of the lake will continue to be a contentious issue. Besides changes in habitats due to fluctuating water levels, the basin is subject to the usual threats including pollution (industrial and agricultural pollutants) and invasive species (both aquatic and terrestrial). Until recently, there were concerns about catastrophic drainage of the lake that would occur by erosion of sediments in the natural outlet into Tolna Coulee. Hardening of this outlet has alleviated this concern.

We can anticipate that if the lake were to fall much below 1450 feet, there will be a strong push by some to transfer water from the Missouri River as was proposed in the early 1990s.


Included within the basin as defined: Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge. Shelvers Grove State Recreation Area is largely under water and is no longer usable. Parts of Stump Lake Park, Grahams Island State Park, Black Tiger Bay State Recreation Area, and Sullys Hill Game Preserve are on high ground and outside the Devils Lake Basin boundary.In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt by executive order set aside four nesting islands in Stump Lake that  became Stump Lake National Wildlife Refuge. These islands were submerged a century later by the rising waters of the lake. A considerable amount of the basin is now flooded farmland that is privately owned.There are several privately-owned resorts and much of the shoreline is privately owned.Communities located on the lake include the City of Devils Lake, Minnewaukan, and Fort Totten (located within Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.


The distribution of percentages among the various habitat types varies enormously with changes in water level. As of 2014, much of the basin is now open water. A fall in the level will expose considerable land, increasing habitat available for shorebirds, increase the amount of shallow wetlands and particularly benefit colonial nesters in cattail marshes. In time some areas would reforest. At it highest recent level of 1453 feet, the level of the lake could go up about four more feet before natural spillover would occur. This would increase the amount of open water at the expense of the other habitat types.Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge formerly had extensive upland and wetlands. It is now mostly submerged. Since 1993, a large expanse of wetlands and mudflats known as "Minnewaukan Flats" has also been submerged. Other expanses of wetlands and mudflats have become established for a time only later to become submerged. Regarding Recent and Present Nesting Colonies:STINK LAKE: About 1 mile south of Church's Ferry. Nesting Island with Ring-billed Gulls (likely over 1000 nesting pairs), California Gulls, and Double Crested Cormorants (observed May 29, 2014)EAST END OF EAST STUMP LAKE: About 175 Double Crested Cormorant Nests (observed May 28, 2014)DAVIS FLATS: On May 28, 2014, several Eared Grebes and Forsters Terns present. In past, hundreds of eared grebes have nested, and until about 3 years ago, there was a large nesting colony of Ring-billed and California Gulls, with one year a Caspian Tern present.East of present Hwy 19 and new Hwy 281: On May 28, 2014, 8 Great Blue Heron Nests and 15 Cormorant Nests.St. Michaels Area: About 10 Great Egrets observed on May 28, 2014, suggesting a nesting colony might be in that area.Along Hwy 20 near Mile Marker 88: 40 Double-crested Cormorant and 3 Great Blue Heron nests on May 28, 2014CATTAIL MARSH EAST OF OLD 281 and SOUTH of US 2 (near Church's Ferry): On May 29, 2014, observed Franklin's Gulls and Black-crowned Night Herons carrying nesting material. Also present: Forster's Terns, Black Terns, and Great Egrets. CATTAIL MARSH SE of Maza: May 29, 2014: Franklin's Gulls carrying nesting material. Several White-faced Ibis (at least 6) and 4 Cattle Egrets seen.

Land Use

The extent of agricultural use varies with the water level within the basin. Uses include grazing, haying, row crops, and small grains. A rise in lake level of just a few feet causes flooding of thousands of acres of farm land. With the freshening of the lake as the water level has increased, fishing and other recreational activities have greatly expanded. New resorts, campgrounds, and lake homes have sprung up around the lake while many former campgrounds, cabins and homes were submerged by the rising waters.

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