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History, benefits of game refuges

Spotlight on Lake Lura Game Refuge in Stearns Co.

“We love the wildlife!” exclaimed Patty Dease, who, with her partner, owns a farm situated in southern Stearns County. The farm is located on a small game refuge of approximately 780 acres including Lake Lura, an environmental lake which is also a waterfowl sanctuary. As we chatted, a few deer came out of the woods and began to graze on the grass in front of the house.

“Sometimes if we get up in the night, we can see deer lying down right next to our window,” said Dease.

A deer fawn is nestled in the hostas at the Lake Lura game refuge in southern Stearns County. Photo by Karen Flaten

Another neighbor, Dorothy (Dodie) Klein, told of the pheasants that she and her husband enjoy seeing on their property, and about finding pheasant chicks in a ditch near her house.

Candy Mullen mused about the wild turkeys she has begun to notice on their land. Wild turkeys, whose population had dwindled from overhunting in the early part of the 20th century, have been reintroduced to this area of Minnesota in recent years. “We love to see the turkeys!” said Mullen, who took photos of a flock of wild turkeys visiting her backyard.

Neighbors shared stories of wildlife they have seen on the refuge. Some talked about the small herd of a dozen or so deer which roam the game refuge; others mentioned pheasants, wild turkeys, and sandhill cranes. Bald eagles and hawks soaring overhead, as well as migrating birds, ducks and other waterfowl are common sights in the neighborhood.

Hunting is prohibited on this tiny game refuge in far southeastern Stearns County. In fact, according to Fred Bengtson, area wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, it is not even legal for people to shoot problem rodents or engage in target practice on the refuge. “No discharge of firearms,” is how he put it.

Mullen was relieved to hear that. Not too long ago, she was out tending to the goats on her farm. A neighbor’s grandson was also busy outside, apparently doing some target practice. “Suddenly, I heard something whizz right past my ear!” said Mullen. The bullet didn’t harm her or the goats, but it did alarm her. As Mullen said, she couldn’t help but think what it might be like to have hunters on land that adjoins theirs. After all, the definition of refuge, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is a place that “provides shelter or protection.”

According to Bengtson, game refuges were first established in the ‘30s and ‘40s and were still being set up in the ‘50s and ‘60s. “It’s the way conservation was done back then,” he said. “There were many reasons that game refuges were established in those days,” continued Bengtson. “Some had to do with the numbers of certain species. Some were private landowners wanting to restrict hunting without posting their land.”

The phenomenon of creating game refuges was influenced by the drought of the 1930s, according to Bengtson, which caused waterfowl populations to plummet. In fact, said Bengtson, “a lot of the wetlands in North America went dry during the many years of drought.” The drought, which brought dust storms to many areas of the country (hence the term “dustbowl days” used to describe that era), began to bring the idea of conservation – of valuable topsoil as well as of waterfowl areas – home to many Americans.

“Lake Lura was in the ‘duck flyway’ back in the 40s and 50s,” according to Tim Klein, whose property lies on the eastern edge of the game refuge. “And,” said Tim, “duck hunting was the thing in those days.” Tim believes there was more hunting interest in general in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

In a way, it was that hunting interest that brought about the creation of the game refuge. Klein heard the story from one of the landowners who lived there when the game refuge was first established.

“Way back,” said Klein, “when we first bought the property – and we’ve been here for 40 years – I heard the story from Mrs. Margaret Damman.”

Anthony (Tony) and Margaret Damman had farmed near Lake Lura since the early 1930s. According to Klein, Mrs. Damman felt she couldn’t keep up with the property after her husband passed away, so she put it up for sale. But before she moved out, Mrs. Damman told Klein about the beginnings of the game refuge.

“Farming was different back then,” said Klein. “Everyone had cattle,z and everything was fenced. Now there aren’t really any fences remaining…” The change to crop farming has made fencing much less prevalent in the last few decades. But in those days, it was normal – and considered common courtesy – for a hunter to close a gate behind him when hunting on someone else’s land, and to make sure any cattle on the property were contained.

But, said Klein, according to Mrs. Damman, that was not happening. Instead, “fences were cut, gates were left open, and cattle were getting out.”

“That is when,” continued Klein, “the local farmers got together and contacted the DNR and created a game refuge.”

Deer are aplenty in the Lura Lake Refuge area. Photo by Candy Mullen

According to Minnesota law, state game refuges can be established in a few different ways. The commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources may designate a game refuge if more than 50 percent of the area is in public ownership. A game refuge can also be established by a petition of landowners. In this case, again according to statute, “…the petition must be signed by the owner, the lessee, or the person in possession of each tract in the area.” Also, “…the game refuge must be a contiguous area of at least 640 acres unless it borders or includes a marsh, or other body of water or watercourse suitable for wildlife habitat.”

In this instance, the game refuge was established through a petition of landowners, who all signed the petition; the land comprised more than 640 acres and also included the lake – Lake Lura – which is certainly suitable for wildlife habitat.

The written record doesn’t show whose idea it was to contact the DNR, nor how much time the landowners living around Lake Lura spent discussing the issue. And Mrs. Damman evidently did not relate that part of the story to Klein. But, by the late summer of 1951, all the owners of the land surrounding Lake Lura had signed a petition requesting that a state game refuge be established. The request was granted by what was then called the State of Minnesota Department of Conservation, Division of Game and Fish. By late September 1951, legal notices had appeared in local newspapers (a statutory requirement), and signs had been posted by the state game warden at each corner of the irregular quadrilateral (another statutory requirement). The Lake Lura State Game Refuge had been created!

In a strange twist, only a few years later, the name of the lake on some maps appeared as Lake Laura. Perhaps someone making maps thought a mistake had been made and wanted to correct it to the more common girl’s name of Laura. In fact, as early as 1958, a Sauk Centre Herald article used the name Lake Laura.

These days, the name of the lake seems to depend on which map a person consults. Some maps label it Lake Laura, some show the name as Lake Lura. One plat book lists the name as Lake Laura – but a Google map of Stearns County has it correctly named Lake Lura.

No matter the name, the game refuge surrounding the small environmental lake in Fairhaven Township is home to abundant wildlife, with the lake itself providing a waterfowl sanctuary in the area. And, said Bengtson, “It’s important to have a few places in the state where waterfowl are protected.”

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