What We Do

Wildlife conservation is at the heart of the National Wildlife Refuge System. It drives everything on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands and waters managed within the Refuge System, from the purposes for which a 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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is established to the recreational activities offered to the resource management tools used. Using conservation best practices, the Refuge System manages Service lands and waters to help ensure the survival of native wildlife species. 

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) focuses on providing optimal feeding and resting habitats for birds. A freshwater impoundment complex is managed to provide waterfowl feeding and resting areas during the winter months. Outside of the winter season these wetland pools provide habitat for shorebirds, wading birds and a variety of reptiles, amphibians and mammals. Regular surveys of birds and vegetation provide information which assists in determining if current management objectives are being met to benefit our trust species. 

Connecting with the community is also an important part of Back Bay NWR's operations. Refuge staff work with local schools and community organizations to provide environmental education activities that connect children with nature and foster a love of the outdoors. Interpretive programs are also conducted throughout the year for the local and visiting public.

Management and Conservation

Refuges deploy a host of scientifically sound management tools to address biological challenges. These tools span active water management to wilderness character monitoring, all aimed at ensuring a balanced conservation approach to benefit both wildlife and people.  At this field station our conservation tool box includes:

  • Planning – Comprehensive Conservation Plan
  • Habitat Restoration: The refuge continuously manages freshwater impoundments, completed two living shoreline installations (with partners) and has several upland reforestation plots.
  • Climate Resilience (1D and 2D surveys)
  • Compatibility Determinations
  • Education & Outreach
  • Fire Management
  • Invasive Species
  • Inventory and Monitoring
  • Land Acquisition
  • Law Enforcement
  • Recreation Management
  • Water Management
  • Threatened Species Conservation

Resource management activities at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge are focused on providing feeding and resting habitats for migrating and wintering waterfowl. These habitats include an 870-acre freshwater impoundment complex. This system consists of ten connected man-made water pools that are managed for waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds throughout the year. A series of water control structures and water pumps are used to raise and lower the water levels of the impoundments. Flooded conditions (deeper waters) are ideal for wintering waterfowl and wading birds, such as herons and egrets. Refuge biologists lower water levels in the spring and fall to create mudflats for use by migrating shorebirds. Vegetation surveys provide data on the health of these ecosystems, assist in the detection of 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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and guide management actions. When water quality conditions in the Back Bay are unsuitable for waterfowl, fish and other organisms, the impoundment complex provides a vital alternative habitat. 

Over two hundred species of birds have been documented at Back Bay Refuge. The diverse array of bird species found at the Refuge include waterfowl, shorebirds, marshbirds, songbirds and sea birds. Biologists conduct surveys all year in the impoundments, along the beach and, aerially, over the Bay (during winter), to assess the numbers of birds using the Refuge and surrounding waters. Assessment of these surveys provides trend information, useful in determining waterbird migration patterns and/or population peaks and lows. Such information is useful to Refuge biologists in determining if current management activities are achieving objectives to benefit our trust species. Additionally, this data is shared regionally and nationally for largescale analysis of populations throughout a migratory range.

Controlling invasive species is another important aspect of natural resource management at Back Bay Refuge. Invasive plants and animals can be detrimental to ecosystems by disrupting food chains and reducing biodiversity. The most aggressive invasive species at the Refuge is the tall common reed (Phragmites australis). This tough, sharp-leaved reed can reproduce by rhizomes or seed, quickly spreading into disturbed areas and displacing diverse native marsh plants. Biologists at Back Bay Refuge and other local, state and private organizations monitor and strive to control Phragmites in the Back Bay watershed. On-going cooperative and individual efforts are in place to restore diversity to the marshes of Back Bay.

Refuge staff also work with partners to monitor the Bay’s extensive natural beds of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). These underwater grasses provide the foundation for Back Bay’s food chain. During the 1970s and 1980s water quality in Back Bay declined and SAV beds disappeared, creating a sterile underwater landscape. With no SAV available for food and/or shelter, migrating waterfowl could not use the Bay as a feeding ground, the substantial largemouth bass nurseries all but disappeared and invertebrates and other SAV-dependent organisms were adversely affected. Since this time the Refuge and its partners have successfully encouraged and contributed to land use changes within the Back Bay watershed. These efforts have led to an improvement in water quality and a gradual return of SAV, which currently provides adequate habitat for many waterfowl, fish and invertebrate populations.

As with most landscapes on the East Coast of the United States, the Back Bay watershed has been changed by human activity. On Refuge lands to the north and west of Back Bay deforestation removed large numbers of once prominent hardwood trees, including oaks, tupelos, sycamores and bald cypress. Agricultural fields and fast-growing loblolly pines filled the gap, reducing the unique forest diversity that once existed. Refuge biologists have reforested several former agricultural fields, recreating hardwood forests of the past. Goals of such reforestation efforts include restoring biodiversity, providing canopy cover for migratory birds, improving habitat for non-avian wildlife and reducing erosion into the tributaries of Back Bay.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal agency responsible for the protection and recovery of threatened and endangered species. As part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Back Bay Refuge works to protect such species in our area. Threatened sea turtles nest annually on the beaches of Virginia Beach. The refuge works with partners, including the U.S. Navy and the Virginia Aquarium, to patrol the entire Virginia Beach coastline every morning during the summer nesting season. Each sea turtle nest is documented and protected with a cage, to prevent predators from destroying the nest during the incubation period. After approximately 60 days the hatchlings (baby turtles) emerge from the nest and make their way to the ocean. Loggerhead sea turtles are, by far, the most common species to nest on our beaches. Green sea turtles and Kemp’s ridley turtles have also been infrequently documented.

Our Services

At this field station we offer the following services:

  • America the Beautiful Passes
  • Duck Stamps
  • Habitat Planning & Management
  • Photo Blinds
  • Special Use Permit
  • Special Use Permit-Commercial Photography
  • Recreation
  • Interpretation
  • Environmental Education
  • Canoe/Kayak Launches
  • Visitor Center
  • Law Enforcement

Several facilities are available to the public at Back Bay NWR. The Refuge’s Visitor Center is open year-round, providing interpretive exhibits, staff or volunteers to provide orientation and answer questions and indoor restrooms. The Visitor Center is located at 4005 Sandpiper Road, Virginia Beach, VA 23456. Hiking and biking trails and locations for freshwater fishing, surf fishing, kayaking, wildlife observation and photography are all located adjacent to the Visitor Center parking areas.

During the fee season, which runs April 1 – October 31, the Fee Booth is staffed at the entrance gate of the wildlife refuge. A Fee Collector is available five days a week to issue passes, provide orientation and answer visitor questions.

A viewing and photography blind is located approximately one mile south of the Visitor Center. The Wildlife Viewing Window is split into an indoor space and covered outdoor area. The indoor space of this facility has seating for up to 100 people and one-way glass for viewing wildlife. The outdoor space consists of a solid wall with slats for viewing and photographing wildlife. Winter is the best season to visit this facility, when ducks and swans are feeding and resting in the area in front of the viewing blind.

On the west side of Back Bay the Refuge maintains a kayak/canoe launch and fishing location at the end of Horn Point Road. Visitors may access this location from April 1 – October 31, from sunrise to sunset. The parking area is adjacent to the bay and a soft kayak/canoe launch. Restroom facilities and an informational kiosk are also available. There is no fee to use this facility.

Our Projects and Research

Back Bay NWR participates in several on-going regional and national research projects. These include collecting data about sea level rise, marsh subsidence/gain and bird populations. Additionally, biologists contribute to a sea turtle genetic study which aims to identify and track the locations of individual female turtle nests. Researchers from universities and other organizations are also welcome to submit proposals for research on the wildlife refuge. Our projects and biological research provides invaluable aid and scientific knowledge about the numerous resident and migrant wildlife species found on the refuge.

Law Enforcement

Refuge law enforcement is an integral part of the wildlife refuge mission. Officers enforce wildlife protection laws on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands and in the country at large. Law enforcement officers also ensure the safety of visitors at national wildlife refuges.

Laws and Regulations

The top priority at national wildlife refuges is the safety of our visiting public. We strive to provide an optimal opportunity to view wildlife in a fun, safe and natural setting. This ensures the integrity of the habitat for our wildlife, as well as an enjoyable experience for visitors. Refuge regulations must be followed at all times while on refuge property.