The National Wildlife Refuge System is the nation’s largest collection of public lands and waters conserved for fish and wildlife. Planning is essential to ensure that the Refuge System meets this conservation commitment.

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Strategic Growth

The National Wildlife Refuge System continues to grow through a land acquisition program that secures the highest quality habitats, or those that could be restored to high quality habitat. A revitalized strategic growth approach was launched in 2012 to ensure that the best choices are made when adding lands and waters to the Refuge System.

The growth of the Refuge System is guided by the following priorities:

  • Recovery of threatened and endangered species
  • Implementation of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan
  • Conservation of migratory birds of special concern

The biological planning and conservation design components of the Strategic Habitat Conservation framework serve as science-based criteria that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses to evaluate strategic growth proposals.  New proposals must identify priority conservation features (or the surrogate species that represent them) and explain how a project or combination of projects contributes to achieving stated population objectives.

Landscape Conservation Design

Landscape Conservation Design ensures that national wildlife refuge national wildlife refuge
A national wildlife refuge is typically a contiguous area of land and water managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  for the conservation and, where appropriate, restoration of fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.

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-level actions contribute to a landscape-level vision.  A landscape covers a large geographic area that has many habitats, conditions and human uses. Landscape Conservation Design provides the opportunity to create a recipe for functional landscapes. It is a long-term process in which flexibility and adaptive management are paramount.  Adaptive management focuses on learning and adapting, through partnerships of managers, scientists and other stakeholders who collaborate on how to create and maintain sustainable ecosystems.

Targeted restoration is necessary on many national wildlife refuges to bring altered landscapes back into ecological balance, enabling native species to thrive. The National Wildlife Refuge System works with public and private partners to identify priority species, develop measurable population objectives and conserve habitats capable of supporting these species.  Landscape and habitat must be resilient to both short-term climate fluctuations and long-term climate change climate change
Climate change includes both global warming driven by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases and the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns. Though there have been previous periods of climatic change, since the mid-20th century humans have had an unprecedented impact on Earth's climate system and caused change on a global scale.

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. Planning recognizes the interests of all stakeholders while never losing sight of the Refuge System’s conservation mission.

Climate Change Planning

Climate change poses one of the most significant conservation threats of the 21st century. The Earth’s climate is changing at an accelerating rate that has the potential to cause abrupt changes in ecosystems and increase the risk of series extinction.

Major ecological effects include habitat transformation, species range shifts, altered phenology, sea-level rise, drought and desertification, increased fire severity, prairie pothole drying, coral bleaching, permafrost melting, numerous hydrological effects, and storm intensification.  Climate change also exacerbates such problems as invasive species invasive species
An invasive species is any plant or animal that has spread or been introduced into a new area where they are, or could, cause harm to the environment, economy, or human, animal, or plant health. Their unwelcome presence can destroy ecosystems and cost millions of dollars.

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, environmental contamination, and wildlife diseases. In general, climate change severely compromises the ecological integrity of North American and global landscapes.

The basic responses to climate change in the conservation community are adaptation, mitigation, and engagement (including education). Planning has a key role to play in each of these responses. To help guide such planning, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped develop two national climate change strategic documents, Rising to the Urgent Challenge and the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.  In addition, the Refuge System and its partners produced Planning for Climate Change on the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Our Library

A brown bison grazes in the foreground with Denver and the Rocky Mountains rising in the background
The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 requires that every national wildlife refuge develop a comprehensive conservation plan (CCP) and revise it every 15 years, as needed. This collection includes comprehensive conservation plans for many national wildlife refuges.