Skip Navigation

National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act

Sage Grouse HenFor almost a century, the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System had been managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under a variety of laws without an "Organic Act" or comprehensive legislation spelling out how it ought to be managed and used by the public. On October 9, 1997, President Clinton signed the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 (Public Law 105-57). The Act amends the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 in a manner that provides an “Organic Act” for the Refuge System.

Opens 3.41 MB PDF of National Wildlife Refuge sites as of 2008The National Wildlife Refuge System is the only system of Federal lands devoted specifically to wildlife.  The System consists of over 560 refuges and thousands of waterfowl production areas spread across all 50 states.  These areas teem with millions of migratory birds, serve as havens for hundreds of endangered species, and host an enormous variety of other plants and animals. Over 45 million people visit units of the National Wildlife Refuge System each year to enjoy a wide range of wildlife-related recreational opportunities. 

External link to USGS website about wetland loss from 1780 to 1980The National Wildlife Refuge System was born in response to the general decline of many wildlife species, drainage of wetlands, market hunting, and especially the resultant negative impacts to migratory bird species.  Early conservationists rushed to establish refuges before wildlife and wetlands disappeared.  Refuges were created by a patchwork of Executive Orders and laws, held together by the fortitude of its early leaders.  As a result, the Refuge system evolved and functioned without a true organic act, or law giving the system a unifying mission.  The Refuge Recreation Act of 1962 and Refuge Administration Act of 1966 were passed, but both laws were concerned mainly with how refuges would be used, rather than how they should function as a system.

Black-necked Stilts and White-faced Ibis at Ruby Lake National Wildlife RefugeThe National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 was passed to ensure that the Refuge System is managed as a national system of related lands, waters, and interests for the protection and conservation of our Nation's wildlife resources.

The new law provides guidance to the Secretary of Interior to ensure the National Wildlife Refuge System is managed as a national system of related lands, waters, and interests for the protection and conservation of the Nation's wildlife resources.  The Act's main components include:

  1. a strong, singular wildlife conservation mission for the Refuge System,
  2. a requirement to maintain the biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of the Refuge System,
  3. a new process for determining compatible uses on refuges,
  4. a recognition that wildlife-dependent recreational uses involving hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation, when determined to be compatible, are legitimate and appropriate public uses of the Refuge System, and that these wildlife-dependent recreational uses are the priority public uses of the Refuge System, and
  5. a requirement that all refuges prepare Comprehensive Conservation Plans.

Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge scene with swansEach refuge or waterfowl production area is above all else, land.  They are living breathing places where the ancient rhythms still beat.  To many they provide a sense of place, a timeless connection to our ancestor's instincts, and a tie to a natural world which nourishes the spirit of individuals and a nation. (Jaimie Rappaport Clark, Dir., U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 1997)


 

Page Photo Credits — Sage Grouse Hen by Sara Wittenberg, Black-necked Stilts and White-faced Ibis by Sara Wittenberg
Last Updated: Dec 18, 2012
Return to main navigation