To conserve wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must cultivate a connected conservation constituency of people who care about wildlife – even if they never visit a national wildlife refuge. The Service needs people to value wildlife. Whether someone’s favorite refuge is Heinz or Arctic, Bayou Sauvage or Seney, if the Service doesn’t have a connected conservation constituency, it will not have the support and resources to accomplish its mission.

The Urban Wildlife Refuge Program seeks to engage local communities as partners in wildlife conservation. Urban areas present an opportunity to reach audiences who are unaware of the Service. Refuges closest to the most people provide the best opportunity to engage new audiences, either at existing urban refuges or through new Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnerships. Building this constituency benefits the entire agency and the broader conservation community.

Urban Refuges

There are 101 refuges whose boundaries are within 25 miles of 250,000 or more people. These urban refuges serve as proving grounds for excellence in community engagement. The focus is on people living near a refuge, some of whom don’t even know it exists. Staff has a prime opportunity to step off the refuge, reach into the community and create long-term relationships that will cultivate new supporters. So far, Service regional offices have identified 14 of the 101 as priority urban refuges and have developed proposals for them that meet the Conserving the Future Standards of Excellence for urban refuges.

The Standards of Excellence, available on the Urban Hub (, are a framework for collaboration between the Service and urban communities on and off Service lands. They are designed to be as flexible and unique as the communities that refuges serve. Developed with input from urban refuge managers, Service staff and partners, the standards challenge the Service to better understand the expectations of communities and to provide conservation leadership relevant to communities.

The standards offer a path to engage urban audiences and make meaningful connections to wildlife, especially in communities where barriers exist to learning about and enjoying nature. This starts by building awareness and understanding, and then devising programs that welcome more people into the conservation community. Partners whose interests may be education, human health or community service can help achieve conservation of wildlife, plants and habitats that are essential to maintaining a healthy planet for people.

Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnerships

No refuge? No problem. The Service has created partnerships where it doesn’t own land.

Many major cities don’t have a refuge nearby, and even in those that do reaching specific neighborhoods can be difficult. One way to meet new audiences “where they are” is to partner with Service programs such as the Urban Bird Treaty City program, schoolyard habitats and hatcheries. Another way is via the 14 Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnerships the Service has helped establish since last year.

These partnerships nurture an appreciation of wildlife conservation in new audiences by empowering local community organizations to inspire conservation in parks, backyards, schoolyards and other natural areas.

The partnerships recognize that sometimes the conservation message is best delivered to new audiences by community leaders or ambassadors who have a long history in the target community. The Service, in return, offers natural resource expertise, financial resources and credibility.

The partnerships are formal recognition of excellence under the Urban Wildlife Refuge Program. They are also cost-effective. In the first year, the Service’s $380,000 seed funding for them has generated more than $2.5 million in matching partner funding.

Schoolchildren enjoy Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, one of 14 regional priority urban refuges. (Justine Belson/USFWS)
Schoolchildren enjoy Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, one of 14 regional priority urban refuges. (Justine Belson/USFWS)

In response to Conserving the Future Recommendation 13 and seeking to reach new audiences across a changing America, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has established “Standards of Excellence for Urban National Wildlife Refuges.” The eight standards are designed primarily as a framework for collaboration between the Service and urban communities, but their principles are applicable to all refuges working to connect with new audiences in their communities. The standards:

1. Know and Relate to the Community

2. Connect Urban People with Nature via Stepping Stones of Engagement

3. Build Partnerships

4. Be a Community Asset

5. Ensure Adequate Long-Term Resources

6. Provide Equitable Access

7. Ensure Visitors Feel Safe and Welcome

8. Model Sustainability

The complete “Standards of Excellence” are available at

Of the 562 existing national wildlife refuges, 101 are considered urban refuges – that is, refuges located within 25 miles of 250,000 or more people. Of those 101, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional offices have identified the following as regional priority urban refuges, those where concentrated programming could have its most impact:

Pacific Region: Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, OR; Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, WA.

Southwest Region: Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, NM; South Texas National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Midwest Region: Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge; Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, MI.

Southeast Region: Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, LA; Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, FL.

Northeast Region: John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, PA; Patuxent Research Refuge, MD.

Mountain-Prairie Region: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, CO; Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, UT.

Pacific Southwest Region: Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, CA; San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex, CA.