What We Do

The National Wildlife Refuge System is a series of lands and waters owned and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wildlife conservation is at the heart of the refuge system. It drives everything we do from the purpose for which a refuge is established, to the recreational activities offered there, to the resource management tools we use. Selecting the right tools helps us ensure the survival of local plant and animal species, and helps fulfill the purpose of the refuge.

Refuge units are actively managed to provide critical habitat for wildlife. Past changes to the northern San Joaquin Valley – loss of habitats and species, alterations to natural hydrology, and the introduction of exotic plant and animal species – necessitates proactive natural resources management activities by the refuge.

The refuge conducts an active wildlife and habitat inventory and monitoring program to collect information about plant and animal distributions and abundances, and to gauge the success of management programs.

For wildlife which has been locally extirpated, the refuge works with partners to reintroduce species to refuge units. The endangered riparian riparian
Definition of riparian habitat or riparian areas.

Learn more about riparian
brush rabbit has been re-established on the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge with the help of partners using rabbits reared at a captive breeding facility. The program has been successful and native-born rabbits are now found throughout the refuge.

Habitat structures are constructed on the refuge to benefit wildlife with very specific needs. These include nest boxes for songbirds, owls, and wood ducks, raised mounds to create high-ground refugia for riparian brush rabbits during floods, and islands in wetlands for nesting and roosting waterfowl. Habitat management and restoration are primary activities throughout the refuge complex and require significant effort to conduct.

Wetland habitat management requires an infrastructure of water conveyance canals, water control structures, pumps, and wells to manage the 150+ individual wetland units at the refuge complex. These wetland units support a tremendous variety and abundance of waterbirds. Most of the refuge’s wetlands are managed as moist soil units where important wetland food plants, in particular smartweed, watergrass, sedge, and swamp timothy are grown as forage for waterbirds. Seasonal wetlands are drained in spring, irrigated during the summer, and flooded in late summer through spring. The careful timing of flooding, draining, and irrigating wetlands encourages key wetland plants to grow and coincides with bird migration so that most wetland units are flooded and provide food when waterbirds are wintering in the Great Central Valley. In addition to seasonal wetlands, the refuge also maintains a smaller amount of year-round permanent wetlands and summer wetlands to provide habitat for breeding waterbirds.

Riparian woodlands consisting of numerous native tree, shrub, and grass species support a vast amount of biodiversity. Many songbird and raptor species nest and forage in the woodland canopy. Secretive species like riparian brush rabbit and riparian woodrat depend on the dense understory to provide cover from predators. The river, in this case the San Joaquin River, supports aquatic vertebrates, invertebrates, and plant species.

Riparian woodlands are key wildlife travel corridors for many Central Valley wildlife species and provide unique breeding sites for many migratory birds. Thousands of acres of riparian woodland have been restored to thriving communities at the refuge. These woodlands attract a diversity of wildlife, including endangered species such as the least Bell’s vireo and riparian woodrat that were previously believed to be extirpated from the Valley.

Management and Conservation

Refuges use a wide range of land management tools based on the best science available. Some refuges use prescribed fires to mimic natural fires that would have cleared old vegetation from the land helping native plants regenerate and local wildlife to thrive. Fire is a natural ecological process across most terrestrial habitats in North America. Many plants and animals have evolved to be fire-adapted and depend on the effects of wildfire on the landscape. Fire management is a critical program at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge’s fire program acts to extinguish all wildfires (to provide for public safety and protect natural resources) and to use prescribed or controlled fire for fuels management, and for ecological purposes on its lands, including habitat improvement and maintenance, threatened and endangered species management, invasive plant reduction, nutrient recycling, improved forage for grazing wildlife, and disease prevention.

A San Joaquin River NWR staff member holds a collared and banded Aleutian cackling goose before releasing it to return to its flock.

Each year refuge staff, along with wildlife conservation partners like the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, capture, collar, and band wintering Aleutian cackling geese. This work permits the collection of data used to determine the current population size and informs management actions needed to conserve this once-endangered species.

US Fish & Wildlife Service staff member releases a riparian riparian
Definition of riparian habitat or riparian areas.

Learn more about riparian
brush rabbit after the rabbit was vaccinated.

Thanks to a decades-long, robust riparian woodland habitat restoration project, the San Joaquin River NWR is home to the largest stable population of the currently-endangered riparian brush rabbit. This small native rabbit -- an inhabitant of dense riparian woodlands -- is vulnerable to numerous threats including wildfire, flooding, urban, commercial and agricultural development, predation from non-native species (like dogs and cats), even disease caused by introduced viruses. Refuge staff are working with conservation partners to capture and vaccinate riparian brush rabbits against a current disease threat, thus ensuring the species' survival.

Refuge Planning 

National Wildlife Refuge planning sets the broad vision for refuge management and the goals, objectives, strategies, and actions required to achieve it. Planning ensures that each refuge meets its individual purposes, contributes to the Refuge System’s mission and priorities, is consistent with other applicable laws and policies, and enhances conservation benefits beyond refuge boundaries. 

Comprehensive Conservation Plans 

Comprehensive Conservation Plans (CCPs) are the primary planning documents for National Wildlife Refuges. As outlined in the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, as amended, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is required to develop CCPs that guide refuge management for the next 15 years. CCPs articulate the Service’s contributions to meeting refuge purposes and the National Wildlife Refuge System mission. CCPs serve as a bridge between broad, landscape-level plans developed by other agencies and stakeholders and the more detailed step-downs that stem from Refuge CCPs.  

The 2006 Final Comprehensive Conservation Plan for San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge can be found here: https://ecos.fws.gov/ServCat/Reference/Profile/8271 

Step-down Plans 

CCP step-down plans guide refuge-level programs for: (1) conserving natural resources (e.g., fish, wildlife, plants, and the ecosystems they depend on for habitat); (2) stewarding other special values of the refuge (e.g., cultural or archeological resources, wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, etc.); and (3) engaging visitors and the community in conservation, including providing opportunities for wildlife-dependent recreation. Like CCPs, step-down plans contribute to the implementation of relevant landscape plans by developing SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) objectives, strategies, implementation schedules, and decision support tools to fulfill refuge visions and goals. This ensures that refuges are managed in a landscape context and that conservation benefits extend beyond refuge boundaries.  

Law Enforcement

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement officers have a wide variety of duties and responsibilities. Officers help visitors understand and obey wildlife protection laws. They also work to ensure that visitors have safe experiences on national wildlife refuges. Federal wildlife officers work closely with state and local government offices to enforce federal, state and refuge hunting regulations that protect migratory birds and other game species from illegal take and preserve legitimate hunting opportunities.

Laws and Regulations

All areas of the refuge are closed to public entry unless otherwise explicitly posted as a nature trail, wildlife observation area, or parking lot.Some areas are closed seasonally and are posted as such.

Visitors to national wildlife refuges must comply with all applicable local, state, federal regulations and signs.

Hours – San Joaquin River NWR is open daily from ½-hour before sunrise to ½-hour after sunset.