Proposed Refuge System Wilderness Areas 

The National Wildlife Refuge System, part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, manages 20 million acres of Congressionally designated wilderness as well as about 14 million acres of proposed wilderness.  

An area becomes proposed wilderness when the Secretary of the Interior recommends to the president that it be designated as wilderness and included as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, and the president transmits a proposal to that effect to Congress.  

By policy, the Refuge System manages proposed wilderness the same way it does designated wilderness; It manages these areas to preserve their wilderness character. This maintains Congress’s authority to designate these areas as wilderness in the future, should it choose to do so.    

Of the 14 million acres of proposed Refuge System wilderness, 12 million are in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Descriptions of Proposed Refuge System Wilderness Areas

[Note; In some cases, proposed wilderness area wilderness area
Wilderness areas are places untamed by humans. The Wilderness Act of 1964 allows Congress to designate wilderness areas for protection to ensure that America's pristine wild lands will not disappear. Wilderness areas can be part of national wildlife refuges, national parks, national forests or public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Learn more about wilderness area
descriptions closely match descriptions for the refuges where they are located.] 

Anaho Island

(Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada; Proposed wilderness acres: 748.)

A rocky island in Pyramid Lake in Washoe County, Nevada, the refuge was established to protect colonial nesting birds. It supports breeding colonies of American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants, California gulls, Caspian terns, great blue herons, black-crowned night-herons and snowy egrets. The pelican colony is one of the two largest in the western United States. The Fish and Wildlife Service manages Anaho Island Refuge under a Memorandum of Understanding with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. 

Back Bay

(Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia; Proposed wilderness acres: 2,165.)

Back Bay Refuge, established to provide feeding and resting habitat for migratory birds, is a critical segment in the Atlantic Flyway. The refuge includes a thin strip of barrier island coastline typical of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, as well as upland areas on the west bank of Back Bay. Habitats include beach, dunes, woodlands, agricultural fields and emergent freshwater marshes. Most refuge marshes are on islands within Back Bay and provide habitat for other wildlife, including threatened and endangered species such as the loggerhead sea turtle and piping plover and recovered species like the brown pelican and bald eagle. 

Bombay Hook

(Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Delaware; Proposed wilderness acres: 2,000.)

Bombay Hook protects one of the largest remaining expanses of tidal salt marsh salt marsh
Salt marshes are found in tidal areas near the coast, where freshwater mixes with saltwater.

Learn more about salt marsh
in the mid-Atlantic region. The refuge is mostly marsh, but also includes freshwater impoundments and upland habitats that are managed for other wildlife. Bombay Hook is a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance and is designated a Globally Important Bird Area.  

Charles M. Russell

(Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Montana; Proposed wilderness acres: 158,619.)

Pronghorn antelope migrate across the refuge and cross the Missouri River via the neighboring UL Bend Wilderness (USFWS) and through the Burnt Lodge and West Seven Blackfoot wilderness study areas (managed by the Bureau of Land Management) — areas eligible for wilderness or proposed wilderness designation. Winter sage grouse tracking shows that grouse migrating from northern Montana and Canada use habitat within the Burnt Lodge proposed wilderness area and surrounding areas in the winter. 


(Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia and Maryland; Proposed wilderness acres: 1,740 [1,300 acres NWRS and 440 acres NPS].)

Assateague Island, a barrier island off the Maryland and Virginia mainland, is managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service as the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, the National Park Service as the Assateague Island National Seashore, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources as Assateague State Park. 

The proposed island wilderness supports a range of habitats that include beach, dunes, shrublands, maritime forest and salt marsh. Recreation opportunities include hunting, fishing, birding, hiking and swimming. 

Crescent Lake

(Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Nebraska; Proposed wilderness acres: 24,502.)

Crescent Lake Refuge lies on the southwestern edge of the 19,300-square-mile Nebraska Sandhills. The Sandhills are made up of rolling, green hills and interdunal valleys that run northwest to southeast. Many shallow lakes and marshes are interspersed in the lower valleys. Native grasses predominate. 

Crescent Lake Refuge provides important habitat for both migratory and non-migratory birds. Thirty-two species of waterfowl use refuge lands during some portion of the year, and 15 species nest on the refuge. The refuge is also home to several species of marsh and water birds, shorebirds and mammals such as white-tailed deer, mule deer and pronghorn. 

Visitors often come to birdwatch.  They also come to hunt white-tailed or mule deer in the designated wilderness area. 


(Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada; Proposed wilderness acres: 1,332,900.)

Proposed wilderness here includes six mountain ranges and portions of the intervening valleys, ranging in elevation from 2,600 feet to nearly 10,000 feet. As a result, the refuge contains nearly every ecological community that occurs in southern Nevada. Desert Refuge encompasses 1.6 million acres of the Mojave Desert and the southern Great Basin located in northern Clark and southern Lincoln Counties. 

Desert Refuge was originally established to protect desert bighorn sheep. Limited bighorn hunting is allowed and  has occurred annually since the refuge was established in 1936. 

Hart Mountain

(Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon; Proposed wilderness acres: 20,390.)

Within the refuge, the Service has proposed two units for wilderness designation: Poker Jim Ridge (17,464 acres) and Fort Warner (32,743 acres).  

The rocky western portion of the Poker Jim Ridge proposed wilderness has historically provided a natural sanctuary from fire and has allowed fire-sensitive western juniper to thrive. Large stands of old-growth juniper are common along the ridgeline. The flatter plateau areas of the proposed wilderness tend to be dominated by sagebrush sagebrush
The western United States’ sagebrush country encompasses over 175 million acres of public and private lands. The sagebrush landscape provides many benefits to our rural economies and communities, and it serves as crucial habitat for a diversity of wildlife, including the iconic greater sage-grouse and over 350 other species.

Learn more about sagebrush
shrubs and some herbaceous forbs and grasses. Sage grouse can be seen displaying at mating leks. 

The area supports several large mammal species, including pronghorn or American antelope. Despite the area’s remote location, visitors come to the refuge to hunt, view wildlife and see a patch of hot springs.  

Hawaiian Islands

(Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Hawaii; Proposed wilderness acres: 1,742.)

The refuge, part of the Pacific Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, is a chain of islands, reefs and atolls. The many small islands provide habitat for more than 14 million seabirds, shorebirds and endangered endemic songbirds and waterfowl. These islands and reefs also provide breeding and foraging habitat for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and the threatened Hawaiian green turtle. 


(Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon; Proposed wilderness acres: 30,000.)

The proposed wilderness is in the Harney Lake unit of Malheur  Refuge. Harney Lake can fluctuate between full and completely dry. When full, the vast water basin covers more than 30,000 acres. When dry, its lakebed is a large flat playa. The playa’s alkaline soil supports little to no vegetation. The surrounding dunes contain shrubs, grasses and forbs. 

Harney Lake provides habitat for several animal species, including jackrabbits (which can often be seen hopping through the sparse vegetation), the Malheur and Merriam’s shrews, and the northern grasshopper mouse.  

One key user of the proposed wilderness is the brackish-water-loving snowy plover. Flocks of plovers, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, come to Harney Lake to breed and lay eggs in shallow scrapes on the playa. 


(Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina; Proposed wilderness acres: 590.)

The refuge, located midway along the Atlantic Flyway, provides valuable habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. A key feature of the refuge is Lake Mattamuskeet. Measuring 16 miles long by 5 to 6 miles wide, it is the largest natural lake in North Carolina. Mattamuskeet Refuge also provides habitat for nesting osprey, wintering bald eagles and peregrine falcons, deer, bobcats, otters, gray foxes and other species.  

Mille Lacs

(Mille Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota; Proposed wilderness acres: 0.57.)

The refuge consists of two islands: Spirit (.23-acre) and Hennepin (.34-acre), both located in Mille Lacs Lake. These islands host one of only five common tern breeding colonies in Minnesota. Management on Hennepin Island focuses on the common tern, a colonial nesting bird. Spirit Island has nesting ring-billed and herring gulls and double-crested cormorants. 

Mille Lacs Lake lies at the bottom of the horseshoe-shaped glacial moraine that extends south from Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge and is a classic example of a moraine-dammed lake. Spirit and Hennepin Islands are made of glacial boulders and gravel pushed up by ice action. 


(Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, Vermont; Proposed wilderness acres: 620.)

The refuge, established to provide habitat for migratory birds, consists mostly of wetland habitats. The 900-acre Maquam Bog is designated as a Research Natural Area. The refuge is designated as an Important Bird Area.  A mosaic of wetland habitats offers opportunities to see more than 200 species of birds. Fall migration can feature as many as 20,000 migrating ducks. Nesting bald eagles, osprey and a great blue heron colony with more than 300 nests are present on the refuge. 

Parker River

(Parker National Wildlife River Refuge, Massachusetts; Proposed wilderness acres: 3,110.)

The refuge is made up of diverse habitats including sandy beach and dune, cranberry bog, maritime forest and shrubland and freshwater marsh. The most abundant habitat is salt marsh. The refuge provides pristine coastal habitat for more than 300 species of birds, as well as a large variety of mammals, insects, fish, reptiles and amphibians. The refuge also provides critical habitat for the federally threatened piping plover. 

The refuge also provides a host of wildlife-dependent recreational activities, including surf fishing, wildlife observation, and photography, interpretive programs, and seasonal waterfowl and deer hunting.  

Pea Island

(Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina; Proposed wilderness acres: 180.)

The refuge was established as a sanctuary and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife, including the greater snow goose and other migratory waterfowl. Pea Island is a much-used feeding and resting area for many species of wintering waterfowl, migrating shorebirds, raptors, wading birds and migrating songbirds. The 13 miles of ocean beach provide nesting habitat for loggerhead sea turtles, piping plover and several species of shorebirds. Peregrine falcons can often be seen during migration. 

Rice Lake

(Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota; Proposed wilderness acres: 1,406.)

The refuge is a mosaic of lakes, marshes, forests, and grasslands that provide habitat for migrant and resident wildlife. The proposed wilderness portion of the refuge is characterized by glacial moraines, rolling hills with small, short rivers and large lakes. Aspen-birch forest and Northern hardwood forest predominate. A significant portion of the proposed wilderness is classified as an open bog, or a flat expanse of poorly drained organic soils known as peat.  

Wetland birds that nest and feed in wild rice beds during the summer include the common loon, American bittern, trumpeter swan, northern harrier, yellow rail, greater yellowlegs, marbled godwit, stilt sandpiper and black tern. Other wildlife species that commonly feed on, or use, wild rice include ducks, geese, sora, American coot, blackbirds, deer, beaver and muskrats. 

The entire proposed wilderness lies within a permitted hunting area. Deer hunting and grouse hunting are the most common activities here.  

Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee

(Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, Mississippi; Proposed wilderness acres: 1,200.)

The proposed wilderness is flat and composed of seasonally flooded and timbered bottomland hardwoods. The mostly unchannelized Noxubee River, 11.4 miles of which lies within the proposed Noxubee Wilderness boundary, is a complex floodplain river system that has remained a naturally meandering river. Two federally listed threatened or endangered animal species are associated with the refuge: the red cockaded woodpecker (endangered) and the wood stork (threatened). 

The proposed Noxubee Wilderness and the refuge provide habitat for white-tailed deer, turkeys, squirrels, raccoons, otters, bobcats, wood ducks, wintering waterfowl and forest breeding birds, as well as other birds and small mammals. 


(Santee National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina; Proposed wilderness acres: 163.)

The proposed wilderness includes Plantation Islands and Little Pine Island.

Several bird species that nest or roost within the proposed Santee Wilderness rely on Lake Marion and adjacent marshes for foraging habitat. Within the proposed wilderness, upland forest and marsh dominate. The forests include solid stands of pine, mixed hardwoods (oak species, gum, etc.), and mixed pine and hardwoods. Wading birds, osprey, songbirds and alligators are often seen around the Plantation Islands. 


(Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada; Proposed wilderness acres: 349,798.)

This high-desert refuge sits within the Columbia Plateau Ecoregion, a subdivision of the larger Great Basin Ecosystem. This region is defined by the dryness associated with being in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains. Most of Sheldon Refuge is covered by sagebrush-steppe habitat, a habitat that has been called one of the most imperiled of North America. 

Refuge habitats host several Nevada Species of Conservation Priority, such as Greater sage-grouse, American pika, mule deer and bighorn sheep, as well as other iconic species such as pronghorn. 


(Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Nebraska; Proposed wilderness acres: 16,317.)

The proposed wilderness is in the Sandhills region, which consists of a series of sandhill ranges called “choppies,” with smooth valleys in between. The combination of mixed-grass prairies in the uplands and wetter habitats in the lowlands creates a unique ecosystem that supports a variety of mammal, bird and reptile species. Both mule deer and white-tailed deer abound, as do jackrabbits, coyotes, foxes, skunks and raccoons. Raptors, sandhill cranes and greater prairie chickens live in the uplands. The approximately 2,000 acres of open water and wetlands support aquatic and waterfowl species such as mallards, gadwalls, blue-winged teal, redheads and canvasbacks. 

Visitors may hike in the uplands at any time. The refuge does not permit boating or camping. The proposed wilderness allows hunting of several species of mammals and birds, including sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chickens and pheasant during the designated state seasons.  

White River

(Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas; Proposed wilderness acres: 975.)  

The proposed wilderness consists of bottomland hardwood and Cypress swamp  in a section of the refuge known as the Sugarberry Research Natural Area. This area has not been logged in more than 130 years and is considered to be primarily old growth.  

In 2006 the refuge was designated as a Globally Important Bird Area by The American Bird Conservancy. It was designated as a RAMSAR site and a Wetland of Importance in 1997. It is also one of six flagship areas of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, and has been designated as an Audubon Important Bird Area. Three endangered species found on the refuge are the interior least tern, pink mucket mussel and fat pocketbook mussel. Wood storks use the refuge in the early fall.