The management of individual refuge system units is dictated, in large part, by the legislation, executive order, or administrative action that creates the unit. The refuge purpose(s) reflected in enabling legislation, executive orders and administrative actions may range from very narrow to very broad.

Operation and management of national wildlife refuges are also influenced by a wide array of other laws, treaties and executive orders pertaining to the conservation and protection of natural and cultural resources. Among the most important orders and laws affecting the operation and management of refuges are Executive Order 12996, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, the Refuge Recreation Act, the Endangered Species ActFish and Wildlife Act of 1956 and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

The National Wildlife Refuge System Centennial Act was passed in November 2000 to help celebrate the 2003 Centennial of the establishment of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.

National Wildlife Refuge Volunteer Improvement Act of 2010

The National Wildlife Refuge Volunteer Improvement Act of 2010 (link to pdf) was signed into law on January 4, 2011. The law maintains the current funding authorization level for the Service’s volunteer and community partnerships programs that are vital to national wildlife refuges, but makes a number of important amendments. The law amends the National Wildlife Refuge Volunteer and Community Partnership Enhancement Act of 1998 to direct Service to carry out a National Volunteer Coordination Program within the National Wildlife Refuge System. It also requires the Director to: (1) publish a national strategy for the coordination and utilization of volunteers within the System; and (2) provide at least one regional volunteer coordinator for each Service region to implement the strategy. As of 2010, more than 39,000 volunteers and Friends contribute nearly 1.4 million hours of support annually on national wildlife refuges.

National Wildlife Refuge System Volunteer and Community Partnership Enhancement Act of 1998

The National Wildlife Refuge System Volunteer and Community Partnership Enhancement Act of 1998 amends the Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956 to promote volunteer programs and community partnerships for the benefit of national wildlife refuges.

Executive Order 12996

Executive Order 12996 defines a conservation mission for the Refuge System, defines six compatible wildlife-dependent recreational activities, defines four guiding principles for management of the System, directs the Secretary to undertake several actions in support of management and public use, directs the Secretary to ensure the maintenance of the biological integrity and environmental health of the System and provides for the identification of existing wildlife-dependent uses that will continue to occur as lands lands are added to the System. (Additional information can be found on an informational fact sheet).

Refuge Administration Act

This Act serves as the "organic act" for the National Wildlife Refuge System. The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, as amended, consolidated the various categories of lands administered by the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary) through the Service into a single National Wildlife Refuge System.

The Act establishes a unifying mission for the Refuge System, a process for determining compatible uses of refuges, and a requirement for preparing comprehensive conservation plans. This Act states first and foremost that the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System be focused singularly on wildlife conservation.

This Act identifies six priority wildlife-dependent recreation uses, clarified the Secretary's authority to accept donations of money for land acquisition and placed restrictions on the transfer, exchange or other disposal of lands within the Refuge System. (Information about the Refuge Improvement Act of 1997 which amended the Refuge Administration Act).

Most importantly, this Act reinforces and expands the "compatibility standard" of the Refuge Recreation Act. The Refuge Administration Act authorizes the Secretary, under such regulations as he may prescribe, to "permit the use of any area within the System for any purpose, including but not limited to hunting, fishing, public recreation and accommodations, and access whenever he determines that such uses are compatible with the major purposes for which such areas were established." (emphasis added).

National Wildlife Refuge System Centennial Act

The Centennial Act was passed as part of Public Law 106-408 (html version | PDF version) on November 21, 2000. The purpose of the legislation was to: (1) to establish a commission to promote awareness by the public; (2) to develop a long-term plan to meet the priority needs; (3) to require an annual report on the needs of the System; and (4) to improve public use programs and facilities.

Refuge Recreation Act

The Recreation Act requires that any recreational use on areas of the National Wildlife Refuge System be "compatible" with the primary purpose(s) for which the area was acquired or established. This Act also requires that sufficient funding be available for the development, operation and maintenance of recreational uses that are not directly related to the area's primary purpose(s).

Endangered Species Act

Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended, did not specifically address the Refuge System but it does directly affect management activities within the National Wildlife Refuge System. The Act directed Federal agencies to take actions that would further the purposes of the Act and to ensure that actions they carry out, authorize or fund do not jeopardize endangered species or their critical habitat.

The Endangered Species Act also provides authority for land acquisition. Conservation of threatened and endangered species has become a major objective of both land acquisition and refuge management programs.

Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956

The Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956 establishes a comprehensive national fish, shellfish, and wildlife resources policy with emphasis on the commercial fishing industry but also with a direction to administer the Act with regard to the inherent right of every citizen and resident to fish for pleasure, enjoyment, and betterment and to maintain and increase public opportunities for recreational use of fish and wildlife resources.

The 1998 amendments to the Act modified the powers of the Secretary of Interior in regard to volunteer service, community partnerships and education programs.

Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 established nine new refuges in Alaska and consolidated and/or expanded existing refuges, resulting in a total of 76.4 million acres on 16 refuges. The Act lists the purposes for each refuge in Alaska and requires development of comprehensive conservation plans. The compatibility standard of the Refuge Administration Act is adopted, with modifications pertaining to subsistence use, other traditional activities and for activities in the "national interest," such as oil and gas development.