Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

The National Wildlife Refuge System, Part 1: An Overview

Pelican Island in the Indian River Lagoon in Florida was the home to an extraordinary number of native birds, many of which were threatened by plume hunters meeting the hot market for feathers (and even whole birds) for women’s hats. Besides brown pelicans, there were thousands of herons, Peale’s egrets, rufous egrets, little white egrets, roseate spoonbills, frigatebirds, and white ibises. The island was federal land open to “disposal” under various federal land laws. Bird lovers tried to buy it, but it wasn’t going well and it looked like the parcel might go to a party with nefarious motives. So the bird lovers reached out to the nation’s most famous bird lover, President Theodore Roosevelt.

The magnificent frigate bird ( Fregata magnificens ). Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The magnificent frigate bird (Fregata magnificens). Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Roosevelt signed an executive order withdrawing Pelican Island as a “national bird reservation.” It was the nation’s first such reservation and the first unit of what would become known as the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS). Before he left office in 1909, Roosevelt proclaimed 51 national bird reservations, as well as separate reservations for bison and moose.

But TR wasn’t the first president to exercise his power over public lands to conserve wildlife. That honor goes to President Benjamin Harrison, who in 1892 proclaimed the Afognak Island Forest and Fish Culture Reserve in the Territory of Alaska. That reserve is now part of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Quite creatively, Harrison withdrew the public lands and waters under a provision of the General Revision Act of 1891 that allows the president to withdraw timberlands in the public domain from sale or occupation. Such withdrawals were the basis of what is now the National Forest System.

The National Wildlife Refuge System didn’t get fully formed until 1997, when Congress passed a law that says the system brings together “all lands, waters, and interests therein administered by the Secretary as wildlife refuges, areas for the protection and conservation of fish and wildlife that are threatened with extinction, wildlife ranges, game ranges, wildlife management areas, or waterfowl production areas.” The same law states that the mission of the NWRS is to “administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.”

NWRS lands were either reserved from the public domain, acquired from other federal agencies, or purchased or donated (either entirely or as easements), or they are leased. As of 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administered 563 national wildlife refuges (NWRs) totaling 146 million acres. The NWRS also includes another 209 waterfowl production areas totaling 3.8 million acres. Fifty “coordination areas” totaling 0.26 million acres, while administered by state fish and wildlife agencies, are nonetheless part of the NWRS. Table 1 lists the NWRS jewels in Oregon.

There are 75 wilderness areas totaling more than 20,000,000 acres on 63 units of the NWRS in 25 states, with the majority of these by number and area in Alaska. There are 13 units of the National Wild and Scenic River System on 11 refuges in 7 states, mostly in Alaska. The Fish and Wildlife Service also administers 418 million acres in 6 marine national monuments outside of the NWRS. Add in 42 administrative sites and 70 national fish hatcheries, and the total area under Fish and Wildlife Service administration is 568,777,163.89 acres (but who’s counting?).

[Part 2 of this series on the National Wildlife Refuge System examines how the system evolved and the management challenges of meeting its mission. Part 3 calls for the National Wildlife Refuge System to be doubled in size for the benefit of this and future generations of Americans.]