Today, there are 553 refuges across the country, with at least one in every state, providing safety to more than 250 threatened or endangered plants and animals. Have you ever wondered how we got there?
President Roosevelt, known for his love of nature and wildlife established Pelican Island as our first national refuge in 1903. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Roosevelt had set the nation on the path to building the largest national Refuge System in the world.
Throughout his presidency, refuges were established around the country, and by the time he left office in 1909, he had declared 53 refuges in 17 states and three territories.
This Refuge System ushered in a new era for the protection of birds, specifically waterfowl, with Acts like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which sought to protect and manage birds migrating between the U.S. and Canada. The first refuge designed specifically for conservation and management of waterfowl was the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge in 1924.
A decade later, the Duck Stamp Act was passed, initially as federal licenses required for hunting migratory waterfowl, they also generated revenue to increase migratory bird habitats, and continue to do so. Later Acts like the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 have only strengthened the System’s ability to protect wildlife and their habitats throughout the country.
In 1935, J.N. “Ding” Darling, then head of the Bureau of Biological Survey, appointed J. Clark Slayer II to manage the Refuge System. Though hesitant at first to leave his University post, Slayer would go on to be called the “father” of the Refuge System, serving for 27 years and expanding it from 1.5 million acres to nearly 29 million acres.
The Refuge System grew again in the 1980s, nearly tripling in size with the addition of 53.7 million acres of Alaskan refuges.
The National Wildlife Refuge System is vital to managing wildlife and wetlands, restoring fish stocks, and providing endangered species a place to live and flourish. Built on the ideals of early-American conservationists seeking to save the wilderness before it was too late, the System guarantees generations to come can continue to experience America’s wilderness.
It was in the infancy of the Refuge System when President Theodore Roosevelt said, “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.”