National Wildlife Refuge

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National wildlife refuge

The United States began establishing wildlife refuges under Theodore Roosevelt . In 1903 he declared Pelican Island in Florida a refuge for the brown pelican , protecting a species that was close to extinction . In 1906 Congress closed all refuges to hunting , and in 1908, it established the National Bison Range refuge in Montana to protect that endangered species .

The refuge system continued to expand later in the century, with a primary emphasis on migratory waterfowl. In 1929 Congress passed the Migratory Bird Convention Act, followed by the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934, which provided funding for waterfowl reserves. Wetlands now make up roughly 75 percent of the national wildlife refuges and serve as linked management units along the major waterfowl flyways.

The second focus in the expansion of the refuge system has been the need to protect endangered and rare species . Several acts have been passed for this purpose, going as far back as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, but most recently the Endangered Species Act of 1973. For example, the whooping crane is protected by a series of national wildlife refuges in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas which are linked to wildlife management areas in Kansas and Nebraska, and these are linked to a national wildlife area in Saskatchewan and their primary breeding grounds in a Canadian national park .

A third recent focus has been on the addition of high-latitude wilderness in Alaska. In 1980 Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Conservation Lands Act which added roughly 54 million acres (22 million ha) of Alaskan land to the national wildlife refuge system.

The refuge system now consists of slightly over 400 refuges, which encompass 99 million acres (40 million ha) of land in parcels ranging from 2.5 acres (1 ha) to 17 million acres (7 million ha) in size. It is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service , which was consolidated under the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1940. As it is officially written, the mandate is to provide, preserve, restore, and manage a national network of land and water for the benefit of society. The wording of the mandate has resulted in an open policy approach, and NWRs have been used for a variety of activities, some of which seem to many incompatible with the ideal of a refuge. For example, a consequence of having financial support from the sale of duck stamps has been the opening of refuges to waterfowl hunting. Other activities, such as fertilizer runoff and other agricultural pollution have seriously impacted the ecological integrity of several reserves in the western United States, including Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in California's San Joaquin Valley.

Perhaps the most significant test of the government's ability to maintain the ecological integrity of the refuge system came over the fight to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration. This is the second largest reserve in the system, and perhaps the most spectacular in terms of wilderness values. Although the proposal had the support of two successive Presidents, Congress rejected it. Critics argued that it was inconsistent to maintain that oil production would benefit the country when it was earmarked for export. And the disaster caused by the Exxon Valdez made oil companies' claims of environmental sensitivity seem to lack credibility.

The general challenges now facing the refuge system arise both from pressure to develop in order to accommodate increased visitor demand and the vague criteria defined in the National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act of 1966 for multiple use.

See also Forest Service; Migration; National Park Service; Oil drilling; Pinchot, Gifford; Wilderness Study Area; Wildlife management

[David A. Duffus ]



Reed, N. P., and D. Drabelle. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984.


Doherty, J. "Refuges on the Rocks." Audubon 85 (July 1983): 4, 6, 74117.

"The Wildlife Refuges (National Wildlife Refuge System)." Wilderness 47 (Fall 1983): 238.

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National Wildlife Refuge

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National Wildlife Refuge