National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act

Bayou Teche landscape

For almost a century, the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System had been managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under a variety of laws without comprehensive legislation spelling out how it ought to be managed and used by the public. In 1997, President Clinton signed the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, an amendment to the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 that ensures the lands are managed with a consistent and well-defined mission.


The National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act (the Act) was passed to ensure that the Refuge System is managed as a national system of related lands, waters, and interests for the protection and conservation of our Nation's wildlife resources.

The only system of Federal lands devoted specifically to wildlife, the National Wildlife Refuge System is a network of diverse and strategically located habitats. More than 545 national wildlife refuges and thousands of waterfowl production areas across the United States teem with millions of migratory birds, serve as havens for hundreds of endangered species, and host an enormous variety of other plants and animals. Over 39 million people visit units of the National Wildlife Refuge System each year to enjoy a wide range of wildlife related recreational opportunities.

The passage of this Act gave guidance to the Secretary of the Interior for the overall management of the Refuge System. The Act's main components include:

  • a strong and singular wildlife conservation Mission for the Refuge System;
  • a requirement that the Secretary of the Interior maintain the biological integrity, diversity and environmental health of the Refuge System;
  • a new process for determining compatible uses on refuges;
  • a recognition that wildlife-dependent recreational uses involving hunting, fishing, wildlife observation and photography, and environmental education and interpretation, when determined to be compatible, are legitimate and appropriate public uses of the Refuge System. These uses of the Refuges receive priority consideration over other public uses in planning and management;
  • that these compatible wildlife-dependent recreational uses are the priority general public uses of the Refuge System; and
  • a requirement for preparing a comprehensive conservation plan for each refuge.