Recognizing that every extinction threatens the web of life that supports us all, Congress in 1973 passed one of the world’s most important pieces of conservation legislation—the Endangered Species Act.


In the 40 years since, the ESA has provided a vital safety net for America’s native fish, wildlife and plants. The act’s protections have enabled us to work with our partners to recover dozens of species, including the bald eagle, grizzly bear and American alligator.


But the number of species that have recovered is by no means a complete measure of the ESA’s success. The act has also succeeded in preventing the extinction of hundreds of species, stabilizing populations and fostering voluntary conservation efforts for many others.


National wildlife refuges are an important part of the ESA’s success. Fifty–eight refuges were specifically established to protect listed species; 248 refuges are home to more than 280 endangered or threatened species. To cite just two examples, Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Iowa is home to the Iowa Pleistocene snail; and Key Cave Refuge in northern Alabama provides habitat for gray bats, Indiana bats and cave crayfish.


As a child, I accompanied my father on trips to National Key Deer Refuge, “Ding” Darling Refuge, Blackbeard Island Refuge and others serving endangered and threatened species.


Without the National Wildlife Refuge System, many endangered species would not be making the recoveries they are. The dramatic comeback of the California condor could not have happened without Hopper Mountain Refuge Complex. Archie Carr Refuge continues to provide crucial habitat for nesting sea turtles.


But we can’t achieve our conservation mission by providing habitat for threatened and endangered species exclusively within our refuge boundaries. Hundreds of imperiled species depend on private lands for the majority of their habitat.


The Conserving the Future document acknowledges this reality, establishing a vision of the Refuge System as the centerpiece of broader landscape–scale conservation efforts. By working with our partners using the latest science, we can expand our conservation efforts beyond the boundaries of the System, using the System to link a network of protected lands and provide greater benefits to additional species.


screenshot of USFWS website
Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Iowa is home to the endangered Iowa Pleistocene snail. Fifty–eight refuges were established to protect endangered or threatened species.
Credit: USFWS

The vision calls on us to prioritize future land acquisition and protection efforts, tying them to rigorous biological planning and conservation objectives developed in cooperation with state fish and wildlife agencies and implemented through effective partnerships. In this way, we can provide the greatest conservation benefits in the right places, regardless of whether we own and manage those places.


Threatened and endangered species are a prime beneficiary of this vision.


For example, the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area ultimately will protect, restore and conserve more than 100,000 acres of habitat on public and private lands to benefit hundreds of rare species, including the Florida panther, Florida black bear, Florida scrub–jay, Everglades snail kite and Eastern indigo snake. These efforts will provide important linkages for migratory birds and several species of concern while enabling working families to stay on the land and continue their own land stewardship.


The Refuge System will play a key role as we seek to accelerate species recovery and foster innovative conservation approaches. That’s worth working for.