By the beginning of the 20th century, huge decreases in wading and migrating bird populations in America due to hunting and habitat loss were becoming impossible to ignore. The decline caused a public outcry, and it created demand for action by the government to put a halt to the devastation. In March 1903, the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida was created by Executive Order by President Theodore Roosevelt as the first unit of what would turn into our National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS). The first warden at Pelican Island, Paul Kroegel, earned only $1 a month in salary.
Today, with a budget of $476.4 million specifically for the NWRS and an overall allocation of $2.8 billion for the Fish and Wildlife Service that administers the system, we have come a long way from the initial allotment of the 3-acre Pelican Island. A total of 560 refuges sprawl across approximately 150 million acres. These refuges offer wildlife habitat protection, migrating bird habitat, and waterfowl hunting opportunities in every single state. Also included are the roughly 2 million acres of wetland prairies in the Midwestern states. These wetlands provide critical ground for nesting and rearing habitat for the the majority of North American waterfowl. Refuge lands can also be designated as wilderness under provisions of the Wilderness Act of 1964, and around 21 million acres of refuges have been placed under this most stringent protection.
National Wildlife Refuges have played a central role in the history of environmental conservation within the United States. In the late 1800s, the Pacific sea bird population declined significantly; however, with the creation of wildlife refuges, places like the Quillayute Needles, Farallon Islands, and parts of the Hawaiian Islands were given protection. Elk and bison refuges, and later antelope refuges, were later included through donations to the government by concerned citizen groups.
It wasn’t until the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 that guidelines were put into place for one single cohesive administration and management document for all the areas within the system. The mandate for the system defined the Refuge System to administer nationally “wildlife refuges, areas for the protection and conservation of fish and wildlife that are threatened with extinction, wildlife ranges, game ranges, wildlife management areas, and waterfowl production areas.”
The largest growth in the NWRS came in the early 1980s with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). Over 53 million acres were added to the NWRS to include nine entirely new refuges and the expansion of seven more, tripling the acreage held in protection.
The value of these lands cannot be understated. According to the NWRS, more than 380 of the nation’s 1,311 endangered or threatened species are protected by these lands. Fifty-nine refuges were created specifically to help species at risk. Using the Antiquities Act of 1906, President Obama recently added more than 442,000 square miles Papahanaumokuakea National Wildlife Refuge this summer, quadrupling its size and protecting at least 7,000 marine species, five of which are protected sea turtles. The addition is significant and much needed.
To access national wildlife refuge sites, an America the Beautiful Pass is needed and can be purchased from most federal recreation sites for $80. Discounted passes are available for fourth graders, senior citizens, active duty military, and people with disabilities. This pass is good for national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests and grasslands, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands, as well as Bureau of Land Management sites.
We all want to visit and enjoy these beautiful spaces that offer reprieve from the day-to-day grind. We have a duty to do so responsibly. By following the Leave No Trace ethic and making memories not tracks, we can ensure these gorgeous environments will be available for future generations.
Consult these articles for additional information on U.S. public lands: