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Refuge Planning - Overview
Mountain-Prairie Region
Graphic button showing the 8 state mountain prairie region

Planning Overview


Why we plan | NWRS mission | Where we plan | Comprehensive conservation planning | Land protection planning | Public involvement | GIS and mapping | Open / close all

Why we plan

Law, policy, and plans—in that order—direct management of national wildlife refuges and wetland management districts. Service-wide law and policy dictate “musts”—things that must happen at refuges and districts as mandated by Congress or the Service.

Refuges and districts are established to protect wildlife and habitat, with specific purposes. The planning process helps ensure that the use of refuge and district lands and waters meets these purposes and the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

In 1997 the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act directed us to prepare a comprehensive conservation plan for every refuge and district. The act's most important principles are (1) to maintain the biological integrity, diversity, and environmental health of a refuge or district; and (2) to facilitate compatible wildlife-dependent recreation.

The Improvement Act requires us to plan and direct the growth of the Refuge System through our land protection program in ways that best accomplish the mission of the Refuge System.

Planning is the means to an end, and that end is good decisions. Planning contributes to informed decisionmaking that recognizes the interests of everyone, while never losing sight of the mission and goals of the Refuge System.

The planning process ensures these fundamental values:

  • A logical, trackable rationale –
    Each plan tracks the decisionmaking, beginning with the purpose of the refuge or district and a broad vision shared with the public, followed by detailed decisions about specific actions.
  • A thorough analysis –
    We base our decisions on scientific and scholarly data and analyses and take into account the surrounding area.
  • Public involvement –
    We base our decisions on understanding and in consideration of public interests.

Mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System »

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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.

Goals of the Refuge System

  • Conserve a diversity of fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats, including species that are endangered or threatened with becoming endangered.
  • Develop and maintain a network of habitats for migratory birds, anadromous and interjurisdictional fish, and marine mammal populations that is strategically distributed and carefully managed to meet important life history needs of these species across their ranges.
  • Conserve those ecosystems, plant communities, wetlands of national or international significance, and landscapes and seascapes that are unique, rare, declining, or underrepresented in existing protection efforts.
  • Provide and enhance opportunities to participate in compatible wildlife-dependent recreation—hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation.
  • Foster understanding and instill appreciation of the diversity and interconnectedness of fish, wildlife, and plants, and their habitats.

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Where we plan »

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We do planning in the Mountain–Prairie Region:

  • to determine the management of wildlife, habitats, and visitor use at national wildlife refuges and wetland management districts,
  • for refuge expansions and establishment of new refuges and district land,
  • for comprehensive, strategic protection of important habitats across landscapes.

The Mountain–Prairie Region administers lands in 125 national wildlife refuges and 24 wetland management districts, which cover about 5,314,000 acres across eight States. In some cases, we have grouped two or more refuges or districts into an administrative complex for ease of management. Each planning effort focuses on one or more refuges, districts, or complexes.

  • Colorado – 8 refuges
  • Kansas – 5 refuges
  • Montana – 23 refuges, 6 districts
  • Nebraska – 6 refuges, 1 district
  • North Dakota – 66 refuges, 11 districts
  • South Dakota – 6 refuges, 6 districts
  • Utah – 4 refuges
  • Wyoming – 7 refuges

National Wildlife Refuges

We use laws passed by Congress, such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and presidential Executive orders to establish refuges.

Most refuges in the Mountain–Prairie Region have mosaics of native grassland and wetlands. Some refuges have unique features such as sandhills and wooded coulees (ravines). Several refuges are mostly small easements on private lands, called limited-interest national wildlife refuges: these easements are closed to the public.

Wetland Management Districts

A wetland management district is an administrative unit that manages the waterfowl production areas in a multicounty area.

Waterfowl production areas are habitats protected through purchase or easement under the Small Wetland Acquisition Program. Congress created this program in 1958 by amending the 1934 Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act (the Duck Stamp Act) to let us use money from Federal Duck Stamps to protect waterfowl habitat.

Most of the waterfowl production areas in the Mountain–Prairie Region are in the Prairie Pothole States of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The areas contain wetlands and surrounding uplands scattered throughout agricultural lands. These areas are breeding, resting, and nesting habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, grassland birds, and other wildlife.


A landscape covers a large geographic area that has many habitats, conditions, and human uses. Some landscapes have expansive, unfragmented habitats that are important to wildlife and need protection. Other landscapes, while more fragmented, can provide valuable wildlife habitat when protected. By looking at resources at a landscape scale, we are in a better position to strategically protect habitat and coordinate and build conservation partnerships that benefit wildlife resources.

The Service developed a geographic framework for landscape analysis and formed landscape conservation cooperatives (LCCs) for eight geographic areas in 2010. These cooperatives are partnerships between the us, U.S. Geological Survey and other Federal agencies, States, tribes, nongovernmental organizations, universities, and other interested parties. Each LCC will apply conservation science at a landscape scale, which will help us respond to accelerated climate change. By functioning as a network of interdependent units, LCC partnerships can accomplish a conservation mission no single organization can accomplish alone.

The LCCs will provide natural resource managers with (1) state-of-the-art information to determine effective conservation actions, and (2) provide tools to compare and contrast management alternatives. Some primary functions of an LCC follow:

  • Evaluation of science, data, modeling results, and conservation actions to predict the ability of a landscape to support priority species.
  • Helping partners identify common goals and priorities to target the right science in the right places.
  • Design and coordination of inventory, monitoring, and research programs.
  • Development and application of analysis tools to figure out weaknesses and predict effects on wildlife. This includes models that assess wildlife population and habitat relationships, climate and nonclimate stressors, and other limiting factors.

The following geographic areas cover the Mountain–Prairie Region (Click here or on the map below to view a large map):

  • Eastern Tallgrass Prairie
  • Great Basin
  • Great Northern
  • Plains and Prairie Potholes
  • Southern Great Plains
  • Southern Rockies

Refuge planning recognizes the importance of LCCs to achieving the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System. We closely tie our planning efforts to conditions, needs, and opportunities in the geographic areas. Every national wildlife refuge and wetland management district contributes to the landscape in which it occurs.

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Comprehensive conservation planning »

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We prepare comprehensive conservation plans for national wildlife refuges and wetland management districts to help fulfill the mission of the Refuge System and manage for the purposes of each refuge and district. These plans address conservation of fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats and describe compatible wildlife-dependent recreation.

Each 15-year comprehensive conservation plan identifies issues, goals, objectives, and strategies for management of a refuge, refuge complex, district, or district complex. The plan describes a vision for the area, gives the refuge or district manager a blueprint for management. The plan provides you with a clear picture of what we intend to do for wildlife protection, habitat management, and visitor services. Fish and wildlife conservation has first priority, followed by the encouragement of public use as long as it is compatible with refuge or district purposes and the Refuge System mission.

The planning process

A planning team generally includes Service biologists, refuge or district managers, planners, and recreation specialists and occasionally representatives from State and tribal agencies and other Federal agencies.

Planning starts with the public announcement of a planning effort through a notice of intent published in the Federal Register. One of the first steps in the planning process is scoping—the gathering of information from the public. With your input, we develop a vision statement of a refuge or district’s desired conditions and the actions needed to achieve the vision.

There are eight steps in the planning process:

  1. Preplanning: plan the plan.
  2. Initiate public involvement and scoping.
  3. Draft the vision statement and goals and determine the substantive issues.
  4. Develop and analyze alternatives.
  5. Prepare the draft plan and environmental document.
  6. Prepare and adopt the final plan.
  7. Implement, monitor, and evaluate the plan.
  8. Review and revise the plan.

Along with the plan, we prepare either an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement that meets the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. The environmental document describes the alternatives we analyzed for management of the refuge or district and the expected effects of each alternative.

You have an opportunity to review and comment on an environmental document and draft plan after we publish a notice of availability of these documents in the Federal Register. This rigorous process ensures that we fully involve the public and analyze all environmental effects. We also publish a notice of availability of the final plan in the Federal Register.

Stepdown plans are separate from, but related to, a comprehensive conservation plan. For example, a stepdown plan for wildlife habitat describes specific projects the refuge staff will do to carry out the habitat direction set in the comprehensive conservation plan.

Plans for the Mountain–Prairie Region

You can find completed plans and plans in progress for the Mountain–Prairie Region in Comprehensive Conservation Plans. You can select a specific plan in progress and find out the plan’s status, contacts, and opportunities for public involvement.

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Land protection planning »

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We use land protection planning to study opportunities to conserve land through purchase, conservation easement, or long-term lease. This planning involves the detailed identification of lands suitable for addition to the National Wildlife Refuge System, description of the lands’ natural resource values, and explanation of how the lands would enhance the Refuge System. We look at individual land tracts as well as lands at the landscape, or ecosystem, scale.

Strategic habitat conservation is our brand name for landscape-scale conservation of habitats. This science-intensive approach to planning has an emphasis on socially viable solutions—working with communities to protect habitats. Strategic habitat conservation is a different way of thinking that leads us to find out, across a landscape or ecosystem, what design of land protection will best achieve habitat conservation. We identify focus areas with priorities for protecting fish, wildlife, and plants.

The planning process

A land protection planning team generally includes Service biologists and planners and often representatives from local and State agencies, other Federal agencies, and partner organizations. We announce the planning effort and start the scoping—the gathering of information and issues about the area from the public. Based on the needs of habitat protection and the issues raised during public involvement, we develop alternatives for conserving habitat and setting refuge boundaries.

Land protection planning consists of one or more of the following efforts for each land protection project: preliminary project proposal, environmental analysis, land protection plan, and conceptual management plan.

Preliminary project proposal: A preliminary project proposal starts the process of creating a new refuge or expanding the boundary of an existing refuge by assessing the general value of the area.

Environmental analysis: Before establishment of a new refuge or revision of the boundary of an existing refuge, we complete an environmental analysis process that involves the local community, State agencies, other Federal agencies, and various organizations. As part of this thorough process,we fully involve the public and analyze all environmental effects. Either an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, documents our evaluation of project alternatives on the physical, biological, and socioeconomic environment.

Land protection plan: We develop a land protection plan to determine whether there is quality fish and wildlife habitat in a geographic study area that we should conserve as part of the Refuge System. We complete a land protection plan to expand an existing refuge’s boundary or to establish a new refuge. A land protection plan for affected landowners describes resource protection needs, proposes a refuge boundary, and identifies in priority order the ownerships that we may acquire from willing sellers.

Conceptual management plan: A conceptual management plan provides general management direction for new refuge lands. This includes interim goals and existing wildlife-dependent recreational uses (hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, photography, environmental education, and interpretation) that we will allow until we have determined their compatibility. This interim period is the time between the expansion or establishment of a refuge and our completion of its comprehensive conservation plan.

Plans for the Mountain-Prairie Region

You can find completed plans and plans in progress for the Mountain-Prairie Region in Land Protection Plans. You can select a specific plan in progress and find out plan status, contacts, and opportunities for public involvement.

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Public involvement »

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The planning process includes a two-way sharing of information and ideas between us and you—the public, neighbors of refuges and districts, cooperating agencies, conservation partners, and others. Your input improves our effectiveness and the quality of our decisions.

Conversations and other communication with you give us the benefit of your collective expertise and information from many individuals. Your involvement helps us identify needs, issues, and different solutions for management of habitat, wildlife, and visitor services.

Depending on the complexity of a planning effort, we share and gather information in one or more ways:

  • Publish notices in the Federal Register
  • Issue news releases
  • Distribute planning updates, environmental documents, and draft and final plans
  • Post current information on this Web site
  • Hold public meetings

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Geographic Information System & mapping »

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The Geographic Information System (GIS) and mapping program uses state-of-the-art software to generate accurate, clear maps from detailed data. A GIS map often represents the analysis of information from multiple databases.

Accurate mapping of geographic data such as vegetation is crucial for the complexities of refuge and district planning. Knowing the exact property boundaries and road locations is as important as knowing habitat locations.

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Page photograph: harebell wildflower in a North Dakota grassland

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with Others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American People.
Last modified: July 26, 2019
All Images Credit to and Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Unless Specified Otherwise.
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