President Theodore Roosevelt is remembered as a larger-than-life figure, a war hero and big-game hunter who turned the presidency into a “bully pulpit” and warned other nations that he would “Speak softly but carry a big stick” in foreign affairs. But one of Roosevelt’s most enduring legacies passed unnoticed at the time. In 1903, Roosevelt established what would become the first National Wildlife Refuge in the United States. That area, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, is today one of 556 designated areas around the United States — covering more than 150 million acres — in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Roosevelt, a noted bird lover and conservationist, would undoubtedly be pleased to see how the system he set in motion has helped conserve, manage and restore wildlife, fish and plant habitats in every U.S. state, protecting diverse ecosystems and helping save species from extinction. Here’s a look at some notable facts about the National Wildlife Refuge System, along with some of the wondrous sights to be found in these unique habitats.
5. National Wildlife Refuges Protect More Than 1,300 Species of Wildlife
Many people associate wildlife refuges with birds. The National Wildlife Refuge System provides habitat for more than 700 species of birds, from iconic birds such as the American bald eagle and California condor, to birds you’ve never heard of, like the Purple Gallinule. But the NWR system helps protect hundreds of other species of wildlife, including 250 reptile and amphibian species, 220 species of mammals and more than 200 species of fish.
4. NWRs Have Improved the Plight of Many Endangered and Threatened Species
Through the years, 59 NWRs have been created solely for the protection of an endangered species. A prime example is the more than half-dozen NWRs created to protect the American bald eagle, which was near extinction in the U.S. in the early 1960s. By 2007, the bird had recovered to the point it was removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act. An NWR created in 1989, the Florida Panther NWR, has helped that threatened species rebuild its population. Other notable species that have come back from the brink of extinction thanks in large part to the NWR system are the California condor and the peregrine falcon. In all, some 280 of the 1,300 or so endangered species in the U.S. can be found in NWRs.
3. NWRs Protect Many Different Ecosystems
Of course, migratory birds and other animals love wetlands, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the NWR system, oversees 38 separate wetland management districts around the country. But NWRs protect many other types of ecosystems, including beaches, deserts, old-growth forests, mountains and islands. There is even a National Wildlife Refuge built on a former chemical weapons facility in the shadow of Denver’s skyline.
2. The NWR System Draws Tens of Millions of Visitors Each Year
More than 45 million people visit National Wildlife Refuges each year, for a variety of reasons. There are numerous opportunities for outdoor recreation such as fishing, hunting and boating. On the surface, hunters and wildlife refuges might seem an unlikely mix, but from the beginning, sportsmen have been integrally involved in the NWR system’s conservation mission, donating funds, labor and land to the cause. Wildlife refuges also offer great natural habitats for bird and wildlife observation and photography. At many NWRs, rangers lead interpretative wildlife tours or other interactive education programs.
1. Pollution, Development, Other Threats Challenge NWRs
Nationwide, NWRs face many challenges. Encroaching development threatens rare ecosystems. Pollution is causing problems with water and air quality. Climate change threatens to dry out critical wetlands, while invasive species pose threats to native species. Then there are the increased demands mankind is putting on the NWRs, whether through increased demands for recreation to requests for industrial uses such as oil production. The most notable example of this, of course, is the long-running controversy over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Proponents of drilling in this 19.3-million-acre area in northeastern Alaska argue that the oil production there could help make the U.S. less dependent upon foreign oil; conservationists have bitterly fought efforts to open the area for drilling for fear of the harm it might do to wildlife in the area.
Undermining the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ability to deal with these issues is a shortage of funding. NWR system officials have identified a multibillion-dollar backlog of projects needed to preserve and protect wildlife and habitats. At a time when government agencies across the board face mandatory cuts, an increase in funding is unlikely anytime soon.
One More: NWRs Always Need Volunteers
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relies heavily on volunteers to help staff the NWR system. Some 42,000 volunteers nationwide help lead interpretative tours and classes, conduct wildlife population surveys, assist with research and help restore habitats. If you love the outdoors, and want to help make a difference, here’s a link to the National Wildlife Refuge volunteer site.