The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.
Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—a federal agency within the Department of the Interior—the National Wildlife Refuge System was founded in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt made the three-acre Pelican Island in Florida's Indian River the first, permanent sanctuary for birds.
Today, there are more than 540 national wildlife refuges encompassing nearly 100 million acres. The Refuge System also includes more than 3,000 wetlands known as waterfowl production areas. Visitors can find a national wildlife refuge in every state and most U.S. territories, and one within an hour's drive of most major cities.
National wildlife refuges are home to more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 200 species of fish. Wildlife refuges provide habitat for more than 250 threatened or endangered plants and animals, including, for example, bald eagles, whooping cranes, manatees, the California jewelflower and the Ivory-billed woodpecker, thought extinct for 60 years until one was sighted at the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, AR, in 2005.
Millions of migrating birds use national wildlife refuges as steppingstones to rest and feed as they fly thousands of miles south for the winter and return north for the summer.
Each year, more than 40 million people visit national wildlife refuges, which offer unparalleled wildlife-dependent recreation opportunities including fishing, wildlife observation, hunting, photography, environmental education and interpretation.
- National wildlife refuges annually host more than 2.3 million hunting visits and about 7 million angling visits. Anglers can enjoy their sport at more than 270 national wildlife refuges.
- More than 2,500 miles of land and water trails aid families and individuals in observing wildlife closely and safely. Observation towers, photo blinds, boardwalks, auto trails, information kiosks, visitor centers and other facilities help staff and volunteers to welcome and orient visitors to the wonders at national wildlife refuges.
- There's no better place than national wildlife refuges for children and adults alike to learn about the natural world and what it means to take care of it. Innovative programs that engage and involve visitors of every age are offered at hundreds of national wildlife refuges.