Wolf Island's recorded history began in 1769 when Christopher DeBrake was granted title to Wolf Island by the King of England. In 1828, part of the island (538 acres) was conveyed to the U.S. Government. The strategic location of Wolf Island made it an important identification point on early navigational charts. An old Coast Guard light, which stood on the northern tip of Wolf Island, has long since disappeared into the ocean. No navigational lights or other structures now exist anywhere on the refuge.
The refuge was established by Executive Order No. 5316 on April 3, 1930, when the 538 acres already in government ownership were set aside as a sanctuary for migratory birds. On October 3, 1972, an additional 4,071 acres were purchased from The Nature Conservancy for $100,000. The balance of the refuge (517 acres) was added December 8, 1972, by a Declaration of Taking. The U.S. District Court, Southern District of Georgia (Civil No. B/1147) set compensation at $20,841.02. No further acquisitions are planned.
The refuge was closed to hunting of migratory birds on April 17, 1973, and was designated a National Wilderness Area on January 3, 1975.
In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, establishing a national policy toward protecting and enhancing air quality. Amendments passed in 1977 and 1990 strengthened the Act, making it a more effective tool for protecting air quality in national parks and national wilderness areas. Sections of the Act established a Prevention of Significant Deterioration of Air Quality permitting process. As a result, Wolf Island (one of 21 refuges designated throughout the entire refuge system) was selected and remains a Class I Air Quality Area as defined by the criteria of the Act. This means that the EPA or the state permitting authority must notify the federal land manager if emissions from a proposed project may impact the air quality of a Class I area, which includes all major facilities located or proposing to locate within 100km (62 miles) of the refuge.