By the mid-19th century, the American public began to realize that the unrestricted killing of wildlife for food, fashion and commerce was destroying irreplaceable resources. An emerging awareness of that problem marked the beginning of a vast network of public lands dedicated wildlife conservation. The National Wildlife Refuge System is an integral part of that network.
What follows are a few key moments that have shaped the Refuge System. Where we can confirm, we reference homelands of federally registered indigenous tribes.
A Legal Framework for Wildlife Conservation
Congress establishes the U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries, the first federal agency concerned with natural resource conservation. The commission is directed to study “the decrease of the food fishes of the seacoasts and lakes of the United States, and to suggest remedial measures.”
Congress establishes Yellowstone National Park as the world’s first national park and “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” The Secretary of the Interior is assigned responsibility for managing the park. For thousands of years before Yellowstone became a national park, it was a place where indigenous people hunted, fished, gathered plants, quarried obsidian, and used the thermal waters for religious and medicinal purposes. Today, many tribes have a traditional connection to its land and resources.
The Lacey Act becomes the first federal law to protect game. It prohibits the interstate transportation of illegally taken fish, wildlife and plants and the importation of fish, wildlife and plant species.
Founding of the Refuge System
At the urging of citizen conservationists, most notably Paul Kroegel, President Theodore Roosevelt establishes what would become Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida (on ancestral lands of the Miccosukee Tribe). It is the first unit of what would become the National Wildlife Refuge System and the first of 53 wildlife sanctuaries Roosevelt would establish as president.
Congress passes and President Theodore Roosevelt signs the Antiquities Act, designed to preserve and protect artifacts under a new rubric of national monuments. Roosevelt uses it to proclaim millions of acres as national monuments — including the Grand Canyon, home to several tribes. Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service co-manages two national monuments and five marine national monuments within the Refuge System.
Under the leadership of its director William T. Hornaday, the New York Zoological Society ships 15 bison (six bulls and nine cows) to live in the wild at Wichita Forest Reserve and Game Preserve in Oklahoma. The preserve, home of the Wichita people and later the Kiowa and Comanche tribes, is a precursor to present-day Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. The transfer of bison becomes an important milestone in the nation’s efforts to save animals from extinction.
President Theodore Roosevelt establishes the National Bison Range within Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation, home of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. This marks the first time Congress appropriates tax dollars to buy land specifically to conserve wildlife. The range, now under jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was part of the National Wildlife Refuge System until December 2020. It is home to 250-300 bison, descended from a herd that tribal members transferred to the reservation in the 1870s.
President Theodore Roosevelt establishes Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge along the California-Oregon border as the first waterfowl refuge. The refuge is home of the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin Bands of Snake Indians — together known as the Klamath Tribes.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is passed by Congress. It implements a 1916 treaty under which the United States and Great Britain (acting on behalf of Canada) agreed to restrict the hunting of migratory birds. The act prohibits the take (including killing, capturing, selling, trading and transport) of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The treaty has since been expanded to include Mexico, Japan and Russia.
Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge is established as a refuge and breeding place for migratory birds, fish, other wildlife and plants. The refuge borders 261 miles of the river in four states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. It is the first migratory bird refuge authorized and funded by Congress.
The Alaska Game Law is enacted, authorizing the Bureau of Biological Survey (forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) to work with the Alaska Game Commission to manage fish and wildlife in Alaska.
The Migratory Bird Conservation Act is passed, creating the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission to oversee acquisition of national wildlife refuge lands. The act states that refuges are to be managed as “inviolate” sanctuaries for migratory birds.
With the cooperation of Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt establishes the Civilian Conservation Corps by executive order. Over the next eight years, amid the Great Depression and a drought that turned much of nation’s midsection into the Dust Bowl, thousands of CCC and Works Progress Administration workers improve habitat and build infrastructure at more than 50 national wildlife refuges. The workers included segregated African Americans and indigenous people.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt appoints the Committee on Wildlife Restoration. Committee members Thomas H. Beck (chairman), Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling and Aldo Leopold prepare a report for the Secretary of Agriculture recommending an aggressive program to acquire lands for waterfowl, upland game, mammals and songbirds, insect-eating birds and ornamental birds. The report further recommends that $50 million be earmarked for acquisition and habitat restoration projects and that a restoration commissioner be appointed under the direction of the Secretaries of Agriculture, Interior and Commerce to supervise wildlife restoration projects government-wide.
The Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act is passed, enabling the federal government to purchase lands that will be managed as inviolate migratory bird sanctuaries by the Bureau of Biological Survey. The act, commonly referred to as the Duck Stamp Act, requires that waterfowl hunters purchase a stamp. Since then, revenue generated by the stamp has been used to protect more than 6 million acres of wildlife habitat.
Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling is appointed leader of the Bureau of Biological Survey. Darling’s 18-month tenure sets a new and ambitious course for the agency to acquire and protect vital wetlands and other habitat nationwide. Darling also designs the first Federal Duck Stamp.
The Bureau of Biological Survey and the Bureau of Fisheries are transferred from the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce, respectively, to the Department of the Interior. As part of this reorganization, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes unsuccessfully lobbies President Franklin D. Roosevelt to transfer the Forest Service from Agriculture to Interior.
The Fish and Wildlife Service
The Department of Interior combines the Bureau of Biological Survey and the Bureau of Fisheries to create the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The first Refuge Manual is published, providing national policies and guidelines for stewardship of national wildlife refuges.
Dr. Clarence Cottam, a longtime Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and eventual assistant director, publishes the results of research examining the effects of pesticides on wildlife. The research was conducted at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, now Patuxent Research Refuge.
The Fish and Wildlife Service adopts the four-flyways concept to regulate waterfowl hunting. This decision is based on 20 years of research on migratory birds by Fred Lincoln and other Bureau of Biological Survey employees. Today, scores of national wildlife refuges are situated along the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific Flyways.
The Fish and Wildlife Service begins to publish the Conservation in Action newsletter, designed to stimulate public interest in national wildlife refuges. Fish and Wildlife Service marine biologist Rachel Carson is the series' lead editor and author of a number of its articles.
Rachel Carson publishes “The Sea Around Us,” a book that combines science and lyrical writing about the ocean. The book sells widely, allowing Carson to retire from the government the following year and pursue a literary career.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is renamed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Congress passes the Fish and Wildlife Act. It authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to make decisions for the development, management, advancement, conservation and protection of fisheries resources and wildlife resources through research, acquisition of refuge lands, development of existing facilities and other means.
The Refuge Recreation Act is signed into law. It requires any public recreation activity on an individual refuge to be compatible with the refuge’s purpose and that funds be available to manage the activity.
The Environmental Movement
Rachel Carson’s seminal book, “Silent Spring,” is released to wide acclaim. The book is a bold indictment of the harm to people and wildlife caused by unregulated use of DDT and other pesticides.
Congress passes and President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Land and Water Conservation Act, which provides a source of funding for local, state and federal acquisition of lands for conservation and recreational uses.
Congress passes and President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Wilderness Act, which establishes the National Wilderness Preservation System. Since then, Congress has designated more than 111 million acres of wilderness on all federal lands, including more than 20 million acres of wilderness within the National Wildlife Refuge System.
The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act formally establishes the National Wildlife Refuge System.
The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act authorizes Alaska Native people to select and receive 44 million acres of public land and $962 million in cash as settlement of their aboriginal claim to lands within the state. The act regulates the selection of lands within existing national wildlife refuges. The act also requires the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw up to 80 million acres of existing public land for consideration as new national wildlife refuges, national parks, national forests and wild and scenic rivers.
Congress passes and President Richard Nixon signs the Endangered Species Act. The 1973 act repeals and replaces the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969. Congress puts the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service in charge of enforcing the 1973 act, which provides new authorities to conserve ecosystems vital to endangered species and threatened species. More than 50 national wildlife refuges have been established to protect endangered species; refuges are home to more than 280 endangered or threatened species.
Amendments to the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 transfer complete jurisdiction of game ranges, such as Cabeza Prieta National Game Range in Arizona, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and require approval of Congress for disposal of any national wildlife refuges.
Refuges in Alaska
Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, President Jimmy Carter establishes Yukon Flats and Becharof National Monuments — home of the traditional territories of the Unanax and Alutiiq/Sugpiaq in Alaska. Within months, Congress re-designates both monuments as national wildlife refuges.
Congress passes and President Jimmy Carter signs the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. ANILCA, as it is known, provides comprehensive management guidance for all public lands in Alaska. It triples the size of the National Wildlife Refuge System, adding 54 million acres in Alaska, establishing nine new refuges (including Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), expanding seven existing refuges and designating numerous wilderness areas.
American alligators are determined to have recovered as a species. As a result of Endangered Species Act-related conservation efforts at national wildlife refuges and elsewhere, the American alligator is removed from the endangered species list.
“National Wildlife Refuges — Continuing Problems With Incompatible Uses Call for Bold Action,” a Government Accountability Office report, identifies the need for major reform in managing refuges. Outside groups begin to press Congress to enact an “organic act“ for the National Wildlife Refuge System.
The National Wildlife Refuge System’s 500th refuge is established: Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, ancestral lands of the Shawnee indigenous peoples in West Virginia.
Congress passes and President Bill Clinton signs the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act. The act spells out the misssion of the Refuge System: “to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.’’ The act identifies wildlife-dependent recreational uses that will be given priority consideration, clarifies the process for determining the compatibility of refuge uses and mandates a long-term refuge planning process, including comprehensive conservation plans, for all refuges.
The National Wildlife Refuge Volunteer and Community Partnerships Act authorizes partnerships with organizations to promote understanding and conservation of fish, wildlife, plants and cultural resources on refuges. It also directs the Secretary of the Interior to lead the way in developing educational programs to further the mission of the Refuge System and the purposes of individual refuges.
“Fulfilling the Promise,” the first National Wildlife Refuge System conference, takes place in Keystone, Colorado, in October 1998. Hundreds of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees, including refuge managers, work with scores of conservation organizations to outline the future of the Refuge System. The resulting report includes 42 recommendations arranged in three broad categories: Wildlife and Habitat; People; and Leadership. The recommendations are put into place over the next decade.
The National Wildlife Refuge System celebrates its centennial. An enduring focal point of the celebration is the Centennial Trail through restored wetlands and tidal mangroves at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. The boardwalk trail — dedicated on March 14, 2003 — incorporates more than 560 engraved planks, one for each refuge established between 1903 and the present. Each plank includes the refuge name, its state or territory and establishment year.
President George W. Bush establishes Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument as part of the Refuge System in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The deep water at the far end of Papahānaumokuākea is home to scores of species found nowhere else on Earth. Additionally, Papahānaumokuākea is a place of spiritual and cultural significance to the Hawaiian people.
Bald eagles are determined to have recovered as a species. As a result of conservation efforts at national wildlife refuges and elsewhere, the iconic symbol of our nation, the North American bald eagle, is removed from the endangered species list.
President George W. Bush establishes Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument as part of the Refuge System. It includes the pristine coral reef ecosystems that surround seven U.S. remote national wildlife refuges: Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll, Howland Island, Baker Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll and Wake Island. The ecosystems are home to millions of nesting seabirds.
President George W. Bush establishes Mariana Trench Marine National Monument as part of the Refuge System in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The monument includes the Marianas Trench and the long arch of submerged volcanoes and hydrothermal vents that run along the Marianas Island chain. It supports some of the most unusual marine life on Earth.
President George W. Bush establishes Rose Atoll Marine National Monument as part of the Refuge System in American Samoa. One of the smallest atolls in the world, it supports dozens of species of rare birds as well as turtles, fish and crabs. It is the only part of the Refuge System south of the equator.
Brown pelicans are determined to have recovered as a species. As a result of conservation efforts at national wildlife refuges and elsewhere, the brown pelican — the bird that inspired the establishment of the first national wildlife refuge at Florida’s Pelican Island — is removed from the endangered species list.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill pollutes public and private lands and waters along the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas, including national wildlife refuges.
The National Wildlife Refuge Volunteer Improvement Act of 2010 (signed into law early in 2011) amends the National Wildlife Refuge Volunteer and Community Partnership Enhancement Act of 1998 to direct U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to carry out a National Volunteer Coordination Program within the National Wildlife Refuge System. It also requires the Fish and Wildlife Service Director to publish a national strategy for the coordination and use of volunteers within the Refuge System and to provide at least one regional volunteer coordinator for each Fish and Wildlife Service region. (More than 38,000 volunteers and Friends contribute about 1.3 million hours of support annually at national wildlife refuges.)
The “Conserving the Future: Wildlife Refuges and the Next Generation” conference is held in Madison, Wisconsin. The resulting strategic vision includes 24 recommendations that help guide National Wildlife Refuge System management decisions to this day.
On January 3, a group of armed militants occupy the headquarters buildings at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. A standoff between the occupiers and federal law enforcement officials lasts 41 days — until February 11, when the final occupiers surrender to police.
Louisiana black bears are determined to have recovered as a species. As a result of conservation efforts at national wildlife refuges and elsewhere, the Louisiana black bear is removed from the endangered species list.
President Barack Obama establishes Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in the Atlantic Ocean off New England. Its waters are home to numerous species of deep-sea corals, fish, whales and other marine mammals. Three submarine canyons and, beyond them, four undersea mountains lie in the waters approximately 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod.
Congress passes and President Donald Trump signs the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which, among other things, permanently authorizes the Land and Water Conservation Act of 1965.
The Department of the Interior greatly expands hunting and fishing opportunities. As a result, hunting, within specified limits, is permitted on 363 wildlife refuges and 36 wetland management districts. Fishing is permitted on 296 wildlife refuges and 35 wetland management districts.
Congress passes and President Donald Trump signs the Great American Outdoors Act. The act provides funding for five years of the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund for maintenance of critical facilities and infrastructure at national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas and American Indian schools. It also uses royalties from offshore oil and natural gas to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.