About Us

In 1998, Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge became the 549th National Wildlife Refuge in the Country. Located in far western Kentucky, the refuge encompasses of one of the largest remaining bottomland hardwood forest in the region. Bottomland hardwood forests are one of the most biologically productive ecosystems on land. Freshwater mussels, amphibians, fish, and mammals are all found in abundance here. Additionally, migratory songbirds and waterfowl take advantage of this rich habitat on their long flights from nesting to wintering grounds. This diversity and abundance of wildlife provides ample hunting, fishing, and other recreational opportunities on the refuge. 

Our Mission

The purpose of the Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge is to protect, enhance, and manage a valuable bottomland wetland ecosystem along the East and West Forks of the Clarks River, for the benefit of waterfowl, neotropical migratory songbirds, forest wildlife, riverine species, and a wide array of other species associated with bottomland hardwood forest. 

Refuge staff coordinates and cooperates extensively with state agencies, tribes, landowners, the public, conservation groups, and local agencies and organizations. Clarks River NWR is a component of several important regional or ecosystem planning and management efforts, and works with all levels of government and non-governmental organizations and private citizens to accomplish goals and objectives specific to those efforts.  

Each unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System is established to serve a statutory purpose that targets the conservation of native species dependent on its lands and waters. All activities on those acres are reviewed for compatibility with this statutory purpose.  

Clarks River NWR was established "... for the development, advancement, management, conservation, and protection of fish and wildlife resources ..." and "... for the benefit of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, in performing its activities and services. Such acceptance may be subject to the terms of any restrictive or affirmative covenant, or condition of servitude...". 

Our History

The Service, as part of its bottomland hardwood conservation program, evaluated the Clarks River as a candidate site for protection in 1975, because it was the only major river in western Kentucky that had not been dammed or dredged and because it was comprised of one of the largest remaining bottomland hardwood forests in the region. The final list of candidate sites published in 1978 excluded Clarks River, because it lay outside the Mississippi Alluvial Valley primary focus area.

Serious discussion about the need for 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.

Learn more about national wildlife refuge
in western Kentucky began in 1987. The refuge could support the mission of the Refuge System, the goals and objectives of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, and help the Commonwealth of Kentucky achieve its conservation goals. In 1989, three potential sites were identified with assistance from KDFWR. Two additional sites were added in 1991, including the site located on the East Fork of the Clarks River first evaluated in 1975. Evaluation of all five sites by Service personnel indicated that the East Fork of the Clarks River was an appropriate location for a national wildlife refuge.

Other important factors in the evaluation process included proximity to the confluence of the Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers in the Mississippi Flyway; strong public support; and the land’s potential for diverse wildlife management. Proximity to three national wildlife refuges and four state wildlife management areas was also an important consideration. Refuge planning documents were sent to Washington, D.C. in 1992, but the proposal was rejected due to other agency priorities; however, continued strong support from the public, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, conservation organizations, and elected officials kept the proposal alive. 

The plans were resubmitted in 1995 and approved on June 19, 1997. Clarks River NWR was established under the Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956 "... for the development, advancement, management, conservation, and protection of fish and wildlife resources ..." and "... for the benefit of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, in performing its activities and services." Then in 1998, the first tract of land was purchased establishing the 549th refuge.  For the first time since the establishment of Kentucky Woodlands NWR in 1938, and its disposal in 1969, the Commonwealth of Kentucky had a national wildlife refuge located entirely within its borders.

Clarks River

Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge was named for the river that flows the entire length of the refuge. That much we know for sure. How the river got its name is a little more muddy, and depending on who is asked a very different answer will be given. There are two popular theories circulating. It is believed the Clarks River was named for either William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, or his brother George Rogers Clark who is well-known as the founder of Louisville, Kentucky.

The Clarks River starts in Henry County, Tennessee and ends in McCracken County, Kentucky as it flows into the Tennessee River.

The first theory for the Clarks River's name is the one that is believed by most locals with generational roots to the area. Its telling goes like this, after completing the famous expedition William Clark kept an interest in Kentucky, the state that his family farm resided in, even after moving to Virginia to marry Julia Hancock. In 1827, He purchased the land that is now known as Paducah, Kentucky. According to the traditional telling of the story, he bought the land from a Chickasaw Chief named “Chief Paduke”. There is also speculation on the authenticity of whether or not Chief Paduke is a real or fictional character, and that mystery may never be solved but residents in the city embrace him and his story. Thus, leading some to believe the river is named for William and his desire to bring settlers into the area of western Kentucky. 

It is in the city of Paducah where the Clarks River flows into the Tennessee River. Here, we can find the second theory of the river's name on a historical marker. The historical marker reads: 

George Rogers Clark was original patentee of land on which Paducah is now located. Two grants totaling 73,962 acres were conveyed to Clark by Virginia, a portion of this representing money owed him for services rendered. Land deeded to brother William (of Lewis and Clark fame) in 1803, "in consideration of $2,100 for sundry services." Clark later developed Paducah. 

On June 27, 1778, George Rogers Clark's army of about 200 faithful followers landed on nearby Owen's Island, just 4 days after starting from Corn Island at Falls of Ohio. A small hunting party appeared soon afterwards, giving valuable information about Kaskaskia. Clark recruited them and proceeded under severe hardship to defeat British and save Illinois country for US.

Some argue that because the historical marker focuses on George Rogers, not William, that the river is named for him. 

One last thought to add while pondering this debate is a third theory. This theory is based off the punctuation, or lack thereof, in the river's name. The river is “Clarks River” instead of “Clark’s River”. This leads some to believe the river's name is not in fact about one brother, but rather named to honor both brothers for their contribution to the history and development of the area.

Other Facilities in this Complex

Kentucky has two National Wildlife Refuges that are managed and located fully in the state. Both conserve and manage natural resources for future generations of outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy.