top of page

The Refuge

The Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge has had many faces throughout history. The lands have been altered by natural events (glaciers) and humans. These grounds were the homeland of the Shawnee tribe until European immigrant raids and diseases forced them out. Settlers farmed the lands and built neighborhoods until they were forced out in 1940 by the The Department of Defense who established the Jefferson Proving Grounds for the U.S. Army and Air Force in. For 45 years, the U.S. Army used previous homes as target practice for bomb testing. Some structures still stand today: Old Timbers Lodge, Oakdale School, and other ruins from previous homes and bridges. Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service maintains Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge on the land laced with unexploded ordnance (UXO), which can be found on most of the property. In June 2000, Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect the land home to endangered fauna and flora (46 plants species listed at state and federal level). As of today, BONWR is 55,000 acres in Southeastern Indiana, across three different counties (Jefferson, Jennings and Ripley), next to the small town of Madison, and just across the Ohio river from Kentucky. The Refuge was created as an "overlay refuge" under a joint agreement with the U.S. Army and Air Force through a 99-year real estate permit. As an overlay refuge, the Army retains ownership and the Fish and Wildlife Service manages the property as Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge. Currently, the Indiana Air National Guard operates an air-to-ground bombing range on the remaining 1,033 acres of the former proving grounds. The range is surrounded by the refuge.

Big Oaks has been designated as a Globally Important Bird Area due to its importance in bird breeding pairs. Refuge habitats include large expanses of grassland, successional scrublands, wetlands, a lake, and forest. 400 nesting pairs of Henslow's sparrows call the grasslands their home - one of the world's largest populations. The caves are home to several endangered bat species during the warmer months and the wet flatwood forests are home to rare salamanders. Bald eagles and golden eagles breed here during the winter. Big Oaks hosts many more species throughout the year.

Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge contains exceptional habitat diversity which supports and enhances many species, and provides rich opportunities for human enjoyment and appreciation of nature's wonders. Species diversity exists due to the diversity of ecosystems: 

  • Lakes and Streams

  • Over 6,000 acres of Wetlands

  • Hardwood Forest

  • Successional Forest and Scrublands

  • Open Grassland and Savanna

  • Caves

If your family has ties to the refuge and you would like to find out where your family used to live on the refuge, please contact the Big Oaks office and we can assist you. 

Please visit the Big Oaks FWS website.

information sign that reads US Army, Jefferson Provnig Ground 1941-1995
big oaks national wildlife refuge sign
landscape of grassland and forest with fog through the trees
bright orange tinted landscape with a shadow of a bird in the grassland

Habitat Management

These habitats are jeopardized by many factors, both natural and man-made:

  • Invasive plant species and non-native plants

  • Overgrowth of non-invasive plants, such as shrub-lands

  • Continued threat from unexploded ordnance (UXO)

  • Environmental and agricultural toxins

Prescribed burning is crucial to habitat management.

Herbicide use is a continuous project to target aggressively growing invasive plant species. The U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) teams sometimes visit the Refuge to clear known UXO hazards.​

Habitat management is key to preserving healthy habitats and there are continuous projects to better the various refuge habitats.

a fire burning grass, showing the black or burned area in its path
bottom of page