Andy Kerr

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

The National Wildlife Refuge System, Part 3: Time to Double Down

During this Trumpian Quadrennium, with a Congress hostile to conservation, the chances of expanding the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) approach zero. Yet the need to double the size of the system has never been greater, so now is the time to start.

Why double? Why not? A doubled NWRS will be twice as good and useful to native fish, wildlife, and plants. Nature will only be conserved for this and future generations if this generation consciously does so.

As of 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administered 563 national wildlife refuges (NWRs) totaling 146 million acres. The NWRS also includes 36,000 waterfowl production areas totaling 3.8 million acres. Let’s round up to 150 million acres as our baseline and aim for 300 million acres.

A Shopping List

Let’s construct an eclectic menu from which to choose as we establish or expand national wildlife refuges.

Bureau of Land Management holdings in Alaska. The BLM administers 73 million acres in the Last Frontier. Half should be transferred to the National Park System and the National Forest System, while the remaining 36.5 million acres should transferred to the NWRS.

Bureau of Land Management holdings in the West. The BLM administers 174 million acres in eleven western states. Some BLM lands are worthy of inclusion in the National Park System, while other BLM lands (mainly in Oregon and Montana) should be included in the National Forest System. There are lots of large landscapes on BLM lands worthy of NWRS protection.

• Charismatic and often imperiled megafauna. The American bison, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep (Rocky Mountain, Sierra Nevada, and desert—including the Peninsular distinct population segment—subspecies) need more of their own large refuges widely dispersed across their ranges. Taking care of these species better would also benefit countless other wildlife species.

Map 1. President Obama's USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has identified several imperiled species upon which it is concentrating conservation efforts available under the farm bill. Source: USDA NRCS. 

Map 1. President Obama's USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has identified several imperiled species upon which it is concentrating conservation efforts available under the farm bill. Source: USDA NRCS. 

• Imperiled species targeted for conservation on “working” lands. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) under the Obama administration targeted many particular imperiled species for priority under the various conservation programs embedded in the current farm bill (see Map 1 and Map 2). It was a creative use of farm bill law, and the NRCS is to be commended for it. However, even if this effort survives the Trump administration, farm bill conservation programs are insufficient to do the job because they are usually transient. Most such programs are for set periods of time, not in perpetuity. Farm owners can elect to put some of their land into the conservation reserve program (such land can be grazed by domestic livestock, a real downside) or various wetland conservation programs, and get paid good money to not intensively farm the land. Participation is generally a function of crop prices, with lower crop prices equaling more conservation participation, and vice versa. Farm bill programs are designed to support farmers, with wildlife being secondary. In many cases, it would be far cheaper for the federal taxpayer to simply acquire the land for permanent conservation than to pay the farm payments for temporary and second-rate conservation efforts. The efforts are second rate in that farm bill programs are generally designed to dial back farming just enough so the imperiled wildlife can barely hang on. These imperiled species need national wildlife refuges where they can thrive.

Map 2. A "working landscape" is one where the land is worked a bit less to allow wildlife to persist. A national wildlife refuge is land where wildlife can thrive. Source: USDA NRCS.

Map 2. A "working landscape" is one where the land is worked a bit less to allow wildlife to persist. A national wildlife refuge is land where wildlife can thrive. Source: USDA NRCS.

• Galliforms galore. The order Galliformes includes various species of grouse (greater, Gunnison, ruffed, spruce, dusky, sooty, and sharp-tailed), prairie chicken (greater and lesser), ptarmigan (willow, rock, and white-tailed), and wild turkey. Some are quite imperiled, and all could use more secure habitat. A series of large refuges across their ranges is just the ticket.

• Endangered ecosystems and landscapes. As but one example, the prairies of North America are mostly plowed up or paved over. What’s left must be conserved, and some of what’s gone should be restored.

• Ecoregion representation. The Environmental Protection Agency has mapped the ecoregions of the United States at four levels, from broad to narrow. An ecoregion is defined as a “recurring pattern of ecosystems associated with characteristic combinations of soil and landform that characterise that region” (Brunckhorst, 2000). In the coterminous United States, there are 105 level 3 and 967 level 4 ecoregions. (In Oregon, there are 9 and 65 respectively.) Every level 4 ecoregion ought to have at least one unit of the NWRS—if not also every county in the United States.

• More waterfowl production areas (WPAs). Part of the NWRS, WPAs are relatively small habitats widely scattered across the landscape. There are currently 36,000 WPAs, ranging from 0.1 acre to 7,468 acres in size (and averaging 90 acres). They are concentrated in the Prairie Pothole Region (North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Montana). Other states with many WPAs are Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Idaho and Maine each have one WPA. That means most states have no WPAs. Most WPAs are acquired with Duck Stamp funds. Most states have ducks.

• Wetlands. I’ve nothing against ducks (some of my best friends are ducks—and beavers), but wetlands are critically important to other species besides ducks. Wetlands also provide other ecosystem benefits such as high water quality and quantity.

• Habitat of endangered endemic species of fish, wildlife, and plants. There are many cases where conserving a relatively small acreage can completely protect the habitat of an endemic species. Several species of fish that speciated as the Pleistocene lakes dried up in the now-arid West reside in a single spring. The same goes for several plant species and even the occasional wildlife species. Protect the habitat and you protect the species.

Oregon, My Oregon

Most national wildlife refuges were established by powers granted by Congress to the president or the secretary of the interior. Alas, it is a power used only once by an interior secretary since 1976, but it could be. If I were secretary of the interior (no chance, as I have confirmation issues), I would

• transfer ~50,000 acres of BLM lands along the coast of Oregon to the NWRS;

• established a plethora of refuges in the Willamette Valley, as time is running out and humans are building out;

• incorporate the BLM’s West Eugene Wetlands into the NWRS along with the BLM’s Warner and Wood River Wetlands;

• expand the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge to include the entire range of the pronghorn that summer at Hart Mountain and winter on the Sheldon NWR just across the line in Nevada. (I’d rename it a national wildlife refuge as it would encompass much critical habitat for greater sage-grouse);

• establish several other large sage-grouse–centered refuges throughout southeast Oregon;

• establish several sharp-tailed grouse refuges in northeast Oregon;

•  expand the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to include the aperiodic high-water marks of Harney and Malheur Lakes;

• establish a national wildlife refuge that included Lake Abert and Abert Rim;

•  expand the Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge to include the historic wetlands above the lake;

• expand the Klamath Marsh NWR to include historic wetlands;

• establish new refuges along Succor Creek and at Paulina Marsh, Silver Lake, the Cow Lakes, Sycan Marsh, Silvies Valley, Big Marsh, and others;

• establish new national wildlife refuges and expand existing ones in every coastal estuary; and

• establish several refuges dedicated to Pacific salmon conservation in what are now predominantly private timberlands in western Oregon.

I’m sure I’ve missed a lot, but you get the idea.

Acquisition Strategies

Massive acreage increases to the NWRS are possible by transferring blocks of federal public lands currently administered by the Bureau of Land Management to the Fish and Wildlife Service. However, major portions of the most important habitats in need of conservation are in private hands. The federal government is going to have to buy them, as it has been buying most NWRS units. Funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Duck Stamp Act, contributions from states, and private philanthropy could all be tapped.

But what if the landowner doesn’t want to sell? In such cases, it may be necessary to appropriate the land through the use of condemnation with just compensation, as is done for other public projects. If it is in the national interest to use the power of eminent domain to have a network of highways, it is also in the national interest to have a network of habitats.

When lands are purchased for the NWRS, all interests should be acquired, not just a conservation easement that allows farming, logging, drilling, mining, or what have you to continue. The best bang for the buck and the best for habitat conservation is full acquisition.

[Part 1 of this three-part series is an overview of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Part 2 examines how the system evolved and its management challenges.]