National Wildlife Refuge

Last updated
National Wildlife Refuge System
IUCN category IV (habitat/species management area)
NWRS Logo.png
Official logo
LocationFlag of the United States.svg  United States
Areaover 150 million acres
Visitors47 million(in FY 2014)
Governing body U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

National Wildlife RefugeSystem is a designation for certain protected areas of the United States managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The National Wildlife Refuge System is the system of public lands and waters set aside to conserve America's fish, wildlife, and plants. Since President Theodore Roosevelt designated Florida's Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge as the first wildlife refuge in 1903, the system has grown to over 568 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts encompassing more than 150,000,000 acres (607,028 km2).



The mission of the refuge system is "To administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of the present and future generations of Americans" (National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997). The system maintains the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health of these natural resources and enables for associated public enjoyment of these areas where compatible with conservation efforts.

National Wildlife Refuges manage a full range of habitat types, including wetlands, prairies, coastal and marine areas, and temperate, tundra, and boreal forests. The management of each habitat is a complex web of controlling or eradicating invasive species, using fire in a prescribed manner, assuring adequate water resources, and assessing external threats such as development or contamination.

Among these, hundreds of national refuges are home to some 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 1000 species of fish. [1] Endangered species are a priority of National Wildlife Refuges in that nearly 60 refuges have been established with the primary purpose of conserving 280 threatened or endangered species.

National Wildlife Refuges are also places where visitors can participate in a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities. The National Wildlife Refuge System welcomes nearly 50 million visitors each year. The system manages six wildlife-dependent recreational uses in accordance with the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, including hunting, fishing, birding, photography, environmental education, and environmental interpretation. Hunters visit more than 350 hunting programs on refuges and on about 36,000 waterfowl production areas. Opportunities for fresh or saltwater fishing are available at more than 340 refuges. At least one wildlife refuge is in each of the 50 states.

National Wildlife Refuge System employees are responsible for planning, biological monitoring and habitat conservation, contaminants management, visitor services, outreach and environmental education, heavy equipment operation, law enforcement, and fire management.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is dealing with such issues as urban intrusion/development, habitat fragmentation, degradation of water quantity and quality, climate change, invasive species, increasing demands for recreation, and increasing demands for energy development. [2] The system has had numerous successes, including providing a habitat for endangered species, migratory birds, plants, and numerous other valuable animals, implementation of the NWRS Improvement Act, acquisition and protection of key critical inholdings, and establishing leadership in habitat restoration and management.

The agency has created Comprehensive Conservation Plans (CCPs) for each refuge, developed through consultation with private and public stakeholders. These began a review process by stakeholders beginning in 2013. The CCPs must be consistent with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) goals for conservation and wildlife management. [3] [4]

The CCPs outline conservation goals for each refuge for 15 years into the future, with the intent that they will be revised every 15 years thereafter. The comprehensive conservation planning process requires several phases, including a scoping phase, in which each refuge holds public meetings to identify the public's main concerns; plan formulation, when refuge staff and FWS planners identify the key issues and refuge goals; writing the draft plan, in which wildlife and habitat alternatives are developed, and the plan is submitted for public review; revision of the draft plan, which takes into consideration the public's input; and plan implementation. [5] [6]

Each CCP is required to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and must contain several potential alternatives to habitat and wildlife management on the refuge, and identify their possible effects on the refuge. Additionally, NEPA requires FWS planners and refuge staff to engage the public in this planning process to assist them with identifying the most appropriate alternative. [3]

Completed CCPs are available to the public and can be found on the FWS website. [4] [5]


Management activities (as of September 30, 2015)

Pelican Island in Florida was the nation's first wildlife refuge, created in 1903. PelicanIslandNWR.jpg
Pelican Island in Florida was the nation's first wildlife refuge, created in 1903.

Comprehensive wildlife and habitat management demands the integration of scientific information from several disciplines, including understanding ecological processes and monitoring status of fish, wildlife and plants. Equally important is an intimate understanding of the social and economic drivers that impact and are affected by management decisions and can facilitate or impede implementation success. Service strategic habitat conservation planning, design, and delivery efforts are affected by the demographic, societal, and cultural changes of population growth and urbanization, as well as people's attitudes and values toward wildlife. Consideration of these factors contributes to the success of the service's mission to protect wildlife and their habitats.

The refuge system works collaboratively internally and externally to leverage resources and achieve effective conservation. It works with other federal agencies, state fish and wildlife agencies, tribes, nongovernmental organizations, local landowners, community volunteers, and other partners. Meaningful engagement with stakeholders at a regional, integrated level adds to the effective conservation achievements of the FWS and allows individual refuges to respond more effectively to challenges.

Wildlife and habitat management activities include:

  1. Monitoring plant and animal populations
  2. Restoring wetland, forest, grassland, and marine habitats
  3. Controlling the spread of invasive species
  4. Reintroducing rare fish, wildlife and plants to formerly occupied habitats
  5. Monitoring air quality
  6. Investigating and cleaning contaminants
  7. Preventing and controlling wildlife disease outbreaks
  8. Assessing water quality and quantity
  9. Understanding the complex relationship between people and wildlife through the integration of social science
  10. Managing habitats through manipulation of water levels, prescribed burning, haying, grazing, timber harvest, and planting vegetation

During fiscal year 2015, the refuge system manipulated 3.1 million acres of habitat (technique #9 from the preceding list) and managed 147 million acres of the system without habitat manipulation (using techniques #1 through 8 from the preceding list).

Refuges attract nearly 50 million visitors each year who come to hunt, fish, observe, and photograph wildlife, and are a significant boon to local economies. According to the FWS's 2013 Banking on Nature Report, visitors to refuges positively impact the local economies. The report details that 47 million people who visited refuges that year:

The refuge system has a professional cadre of law enforcement officers that supports a broad spectrum of service programs by enforcing conservation laws established to protect the fish, wildlife, cultural, and archaeological resources the service manages in trust for the American people. They also educate the public about the FWS's mission, contribute to environmental education and outreach, provide safety and security for the visiting public, assist local communities with law enforcement and natural disaster response and recovery through emergency management programs, and help protect native subsistence rights. They are routinely involved with the greater law enforcement community in cooperative efforts to combat the nation's drug problems, address border security issues, and aid in other security challenges.

Prevention and control of wildland fires is also a part of refuge management. Completion of controlled burns to reduce fuel loading, and participation in the interagency wildland fire suppression efforts, are vital for management of refuge lands.

A considerable infrastructure of physical structures is also essential to proper management of refuge lands. As of September 30, 2015, the refuges had 13,030 roads, bridges, and trails; 5,284 buildings; 8,007 water management structures; and 7,886 other structures such as visitor facility enhancements (hunting blinds, fishing piers, boat docks, observation decks, and information kiosks). The overall facility infrastructure is valued at nearly $30 billion.

Physical features

The area of the refuge system is heavily influenced by large areas devoted to protecting wild Alaska and to protecting marine habitats in the Pacific Ocean; however, the number of units and public visitation overwhelmingly occurs in the lower 48 states, though these refuges and wetland management districts constitute only a little over 1% of the system.

Geographic areaNo. of unitsSize of NWRS (Sept 30, 2014)Notes
State of Alaska1676.9 million acres51% of total refuge system acres are in AK; about 18% of AK is set aside as national wildlife refuges
Hawaii and Pacific Marine Areas2254.8 million acres37% of total refuge system acres are located in the Pacific; nearly all these acres are in four marine national monuments; these areas are predominantly coral reefs and open ocean.
Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Navassa NWR90.4 million acresLargest refuge is Navassa Island, which is nearly 365,000 acres
Lower 48 states55318.3 million acres12% of total NWRS acres are in the lower 48 states; the NWRS constitutes about 0.9% of lower 48 acreage. By unit count, 92% of NWRS units are in the lower 48; 515 are refuges (14.2 million acres) and 38 wetland management districts (3.8 million acres).
Entire refuge system600150.3 million acres568 refuges and 38 wetland management districts




Special designation areas

In addition to refuge status, the "special" status of lands within individual refuges may be recognized by additional designations, either legislatively or administratively. Special designation may also occur through the actions of other legitimate agencies or organizations. The influence that special designations may have on the management of refuge lands and waters may vary considerably.

Special designation areas within the refuge system as of September 30, 2014, included:

List of refuges

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge</span> United States National Wildlife Refuge in Florida

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge is a United States National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), and part of the Everglades Headwaters NWR complex, located just off the western coast of North Hutchinson Island in the Indian River Lagoon east of Sebastian, Florida. The refuge consists of a 3-acre (12,000 m2) island that includes an additional 2.5 acres (10,000 m2) of surrounding water and is located off the east coast of Florida of the Indian River Lagoon. Established by an executive order of President Theodore Roosevelt on March 14, 1903, Pelican Island was the first National wildlife refuge in the United States. It was created to protect egrets and other birds from extinction through plume hunting.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge</span> United States National Wildlife Refuge in Florida

The Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge is a 145,188-acre (587.55 km2) wildlife sanctuary is located west of Boynton Beach, in Palm Beach County, Florida. It is also known as Water Conservation Area 1 (WCA-1). It includes the most northern remnant of the historic Everglades wetland ecosystem.

The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge is a National Wildlife Refuge in the U.S. state of Montana on the Missouri River. The refuge surrounds Fort Peck Reservoir and is 915,814 acres (3,706.17 km2) in size. It is the second-largest National Wildlife Refuge in the lower 48 states of the United States, and the largest in Montana. Created in 1936, it was originally called the Fort Peck Game Range. It was renamed in 1963 after Montana artist Charles M. Russell, a famous painter of the American West. In 1976, the "range" was made a "refuge".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">National Wilderness Preservation System</span> Protection of wilderness areas in the U.S.

The National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) of the United States protects federally managed wilderness areas designated for preservation in their natural condition. Activity on formally designated wilderness areas is coordinated by the National Wilderness Preservation System. Wilderness areas are managed by four federal land management agencies: the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge</span> Nature center in Folkston, Georgia, USA

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is a 402,000‑acre (1,627 km2) National Wildlife Refuge located in Charlton, Ware, and Clinch Counties of Georgia, and Baker County in Florida, United States. The refuge is administered from offices in Folkston, Georgia. The refuge was established in 1937 to protect a majority of the 438,000 acre (1,772 km2) Okefenokee Swamp. The name "Okefenokee" is a Native American word meaning "trembling earth."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Seney National Wildlife Refuge</span> Protected area in Schoolcraft County, MI

The Seney National Wildlife Refuge is a managed wetland in Schoolcraft County in the U.S. state of Michigan. It has an area of 95,212 acres (385 km2). It is bordered by M-28 and M-77. The nearest town of any size is Seney, Michigan. The refuge contains the Seney Wilderness Area and the Strangmoor Bog National Natural Landmark within its boundaries.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge</span>

Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge is located in the fertile Willamette Valley of northwestern Oregon, 12 miles (19 km) south of Salem. The valley was once a rich mix of wildlife habitats. Valley wetlands were once extensive, with meandering stream channels and vast seasonal marshes. Today, the valley is a mix of farmland and growing cities, with few areas remaining for wildlife.

The Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge is a 950-acre (384.5 ha) National Wildlife Refuge in ten units across the U.S. state of Connecticut. Located in the Atlantic Flyway, the refuge spans 70 miles (110 km) of Connecticut coastline and provides important resting, feeding, and nesting habitat for many species of wading birds, shorebirds, songbirds and terns, including the endangered roseate tern. Adjacent waters serve as wintering habitat for brant, scoters, American black duck, and other waterfowl. Overall, the refuge encompasses over 900 acres (364.2 ha) of barrier beach, intertidal wetland and fragile island habitats.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of the National Wildlife Refuge System</span>

The National Wildlife Refuge System in the United States has a long and distinguished history.

The Half-Way Lake National Wildlife Refuge is located in the U.S. state of North Dakota and consists of 160 acres (0.65 km2.) The refuge is a "limited-interest" refuge, which is privately owned easement refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The refuge is closed to the public and was established to protect habitat for migratory bird species and other animal life. Chase Lake Wetland Management District oversees the refuge, which in turn is a part of the Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge</span> Wetlands and lowlands sanctuary in the U.S. state of Oregon

The Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge is a 1,856 acres (751 ha) wetlands and lowlands sanctuary in the northwestern part of the U.S. state of Oregon. Established in 1992 and opened to the public in 2006, it is managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Located in southeastern Washington County, 15 miles (24 km) southwest of Portland, the refuge is bordered by Sherwood, Tualatin and Tigard. A newer area, extending into northern Yamhill County, is located further west near the city of Gaston surrounding the former Wapato Lake.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge</span> Protected area in Ulster County, New York

The Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge is a wildlife refuge located in Ulster County, New York, United States. Formerly the Galeville Military Airport, it was decommissioned in 1994 and turned over to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1999. It serves as a waypoint for grassland-dependent migratory birds.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Protected areas of California</span> Protected environmental areas of California, US

According to the California Protected Areas Database (CPAD), in the state of California, United States, there are over 14,000 inventoried protected areas administered by public agencies and non-profits. In addition, there are private conservation areas and other easements. They include almost one-third of California's scenic coastline, including coastal wetlands, estuaries, beaches, and dune systems. The California State Parks system alone has 270 units and covers 1.3 million acres (5,300 km2), with over 280 miles (450 km) of coastline, 625 miles (1,006 km) of lake and river frontage, nearly 18,000 campsites, and 3,000 miles (5,000 km) of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gravel Island National Wildlife Refuge</span>

Gravel Island National Wildlife Refuge is a National Wildlife Refuge located off the Door Peninsula in Wisconsin. Founded in 1913, the refuge consists of two Lake Michigan islands that act as nesting grounds for native bird species. It is inhabited by large colonies of shore birds and waterfowl in addition to hosting a pair of great black-backed gulls, one of farthest westward breeding sites of the species.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge</span> National wildlife refuge in Minnesota, United States

Straddling the headwaters of the Minnesota River in west-central Minnesota, Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge is within the heart of the tallgrass prairie's historic range. Today, less than one-percent of tallgrass prairie remains.

Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge was established to provide a means of working with individuals, groups, private organizations, and government entities to permanently preserve a portion of the remaining remnant tracts of northern tallgrass prairie in Minnesota and Iowa. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is acquiring remnant prairie tracts for the refuge in both easement and fee title interests from willing sellers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sayville National Wildlife Refuge</span>

The Sayville National Wildlife Refuge is a 127-acre (51 ha) National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) located in West Sayville, New York about two miles (3.2 km) inland from the Great South Bay. Sayville NWR is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a sub-unit of Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge and part of the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex. It is the only land-locked refuge in the complex.

The John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge is a national wildlife refuge of the United States, located along the Narrow River on the southern coast of Rhode Island.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Refuge Water Supply Program</span> US program to supply wetlands in central California with water

The Refuge Water Supply Program (RWSP) is administered by the United States Department of the Interior jointly by the Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service and tasked with acquiring a portion and delivering a total of 555,515 acre feet (AF) of water annually to 19 specific protected wetland areas in the Central Valley of California as mandated with the passing of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act signed on October 30, 1992, by President George H. W. Bush.

The Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area, created in 2012, the newest addition and 556th unit of the United States National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) System, began with 10 acres (4.0 ha) donated to the conservation effort as part of the Obama administration's America's Great Outdoors Initiative.


  1. "The Refuge System". National Wildlife Refuge Association. Retrieved 24 January 2023.
  2. Crafton, R. Eliot; Comay, Laura B.; Humphries, Marc (May 9, 2018). Oil and Gas Activities Within the National Wildlife Refuge System (PDF). Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. Retrieved 14 May 2018.
  3. 1 2 National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, 1997.
  4. 1 2 United States Fish and Wildlife Service. "National Wildlife Refuge System: Refuge Planning- by Region",2010
  5. 1 2 National Wildlife Refuge Association. "Comprehensive Conservation Plans"
  6. Cooperative Alliance for Refuge Enhancement (C.A.R.E.). "Comprehensive Conservation Plans: Coming to a Refuge Near You!", 2007
  7. 2008 actuals from RAPP Annual Report
  8. "National wildlife refuges in Nevada face staffing shortages". Associated Press . 2019-12-26. Retrieved 2019-12-28 via Los Angeles Times.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)

Further reading