Two new national wildlife refuges were established and one refuge was authorized over an eight–day period in late September.

Dakota Grassland Conservation Area, which encompasses swaths of South Dakota and North Dakota, became the 554th refuge on September 22 when two conservation easements totaling almost 1,400 acres were acquired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area in eastern Kansas became the 555th refuge on September 28 when a 4.2–acre conservation easement was received via donation from private landowners to the Service.

Middle Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico was authorized by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on September 29.

A refuge is “authorized” once its acquisition boundary has been drawn, approved and announced. A previously authorized refuge is formally “established” once the first parcel of land has been acquired or permanently protected.

The Dakota Grassland Conservation Area, which includes 1.7 million acres of grassland and 240,000 acres of wetland within its boundaries, is designed to be a model for conserving working agricultural landscapes while benefiting wildlife. The expansive conservation area is vital, Service planners say, because, at current conversion rates, half of the remaining native prairie in the Prairie Pothole Region will be converted to other uses in 34 years—and existing programs can’t keep pace.

The Dakota Grassland Conservation Area is designed to augment the Service’s half–century–old Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, which is funded primarily by Duck Stamps. The conservation area will use the Land and Water Conservation Fund and North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants to purchase perpetual conservation easements from willing sellers.

Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area is designed to help maintain the integrity of tallgrass prairie wildlife habitat, stream water quality and the agricultural heritage of the Flint Hills. More than 1 million acres are expected to be protected through voluntary, perpetual conservation easements, resulting in a “conservation footprint” of nearly 3 million acres.

The easements will protect habitat for more than 100 species of grassland birds and 500 plant species, and ensure the region’s sustainable ranching culture—which supports conservation of the tallgrass prairie—will continue. Today, less than four percent of the once–vast tallgrass prairie in the United States remains. Nearly 80 percent of that lies in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma.

The Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area evolved from the Service’s work with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, private landowners, other agencies and partners. The conservation area “will serve as a living example of how wildlife conservation and ranching can successfully go hand in hand,” Salazar has said.

Jim Kurth, chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, said the two new conservation areas “ensure the continued survival of a vital ecosystem that might otherwise vanish.” He said their addition also demonstrates how regional and national interests can work together to protect land while preserving landowners’ way of life.

Urban Refuge in New Mexico

The proposed Middle Rio Grande Refuge on the former Price’s Dairy Farm five miles south of downtown Albuquerque is designed to serve as an urban oasis for both wildlife and people.

“With the support of Bernalillo County, the Trust for Public Land, New Mexico’s Congressional delegation, and many partners, New Mexico will gain its first urban national wildlife refuge,” Salazar said. “Once complete, this refuge, which is within a half–hour drive of nearly half of New Mexico’s population, will be a place for people to connect with and learn about the natural world and will provide valuable habitat for wildlife, including the endangered the southwestern willow flycatcher.”

Salazar said the refuge would fulfill the goals of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative to work with community partners to establish a 21st–century conservation ethic and reconnect people, especially young people, to the natural world.

The Service intends to work with its partners to establish environmental education programs at the refuge and provide demonstration areas for sustainable agriculture. Once the refuge is fully restored, visitors will likely be able to see waterfowl, small mammals and neotropical migrant birds, including flycatchers.

Before the Flint Hills and Dakota Grassland conservation areas, the two most recently established refuges were Cherry Valley Refuge in northeastern Pennsylvania in October 2010 and Tulare Basin Wildlife Management Area in central California in March 2010.